Dotted Line Dotted Line

Fiction Winter 2014    poetry    all issues


Michelle Ross
Cinema Verité

Laura M. Rocha
Young & Golden

Shawn Miklaucic
Crepe Myrtle

Kim Drew Wright
The Long Road

Mark Sutz

Vincent Paul Vanneman
Aurora Borealis

Jyotsna Sreenivasan

Richard Herring

Rafal Redlinski
Are you an alcoholic? A self-test

Paul Pedroza
Motion Without Meaning

Jessica Walker
Dinner at the Twicketts

Rik Barberi
What Ever Happens Next

Matthew Shoen
Special Meats

Nicholas MacDonnell
The Long Way Home

ML Roberts
How You Won’t Go Back

Bill Harper
Eastside Story

Terry Engel
Childhood Revisited

John Mort
The Book Club

Paul Luikart
The Edge of the Known World

Matthew Shoen

Special Meats

The grey-haired pastor and his Wesleyan flock were blocking the road to Special Meats, so I called my boss to let him know I’d be late.

Glen swore up and down when I told him about the roadblock. He’d only just called the cops, so I was stuck until the pastor was coaxed back into his rabbit hole of a church. I turned off my car and reclined the seat.

Outside they were chanting “The only genes God wants tampered with are blue jeans!” over and over again.

I mouthed along out of boredom, and watched the protesters shuffle up and down the road. Most were holding a sign in one hand and a cane in the other. To my surprise, I saw a few people with Downs Syndrome marching along. They were young too which was uncommon. Most people were pruning genetic warts like Downs Syndrome out of their offspring. The mentally handicapped were a rare sight in 2031.

The people with Downs Syndrome were all wearing shirts that said I’m Worthwhile Too! It was sad. They’re parents had probably been too poor to afford any genetic pruning procedures and too stubborn to abort them. With all the control people had over the development of their babies the mentally handicapped were dying out, along with the programs established to help them. My Aunt Jenifer had Downs Syndrome, so did my cousin Greg. They lived pretty well, but they’d both been hired to work in a paper mill years ago, back when there were more people like them. The people helping their parents and grandparents block the road, I doubted any of them had a job and nobody would hire them. Society was waiting for them to go extinct.

Finally, the cops cleared the road. As I drove past them, a pissed grandmother spit all over my windshield and flipped me an arthritic, crooked, middle finger. I thought about how I would phrase the encounter for Alyssa, play it up for laughs. We needed to laugh more.

When I got to work, the queue was already pretty backed up and a few guys from the early morning shift were standing outside impatiently waiting for us to come and relieve them. I parked and popped my wedding ring into the cup holder of my 2025 Honda Gemini. I always took it off to keep blood from rusting the metal band.

“Fucking finally, don’t worry Joel, just take your time. It’s not as if I have a home to go to,” Tom said between puffs on his cigarette.

“I just want to walk slowly so I can take my time and admire you,” I said, sauntering up to Tom.

“You’re just too sexy Tom,” I reached around for his ass.

“Cut it out you friggen homo,” he said, jumping back like I’d made a pass at him in the boys’ locker room. Tom was too easy to fuck with. He played tough, but the moment you acted gay his walls collapsed.

I didn’t torment him too badly though. He’d agreed to take one of my shifts so Alyssa and I could go camping by Lake Champlain. Our hours were terribly mismatched. Whenever she had a day off from the hospital the smells that came home with me made her nauseous. I never complained though when she came from Burlington with the undeniable smell of antiseptic and blood on her clothes.

I spoke to Glen for a few minutes after punching in and got my work assignment. I was processing gemods into the facility. I put on my bloody work apron and parted with Glen at the door which led to the rendering floor of the Special Meats Slaughterhouse. We were one of only two places in Vermont licensed to process genetically modified cattle. Glen went deeper into the facility, while I headed to the loading docks.

We had a few tractor trailers already lined up and marked with the farms they’d come from. Inside the trailers, I could hear the quiet lowing of the gemod cows. The first trucker was pacing by his rig and packing a lip of Skoal. When he saw me the man practically ran over, eager to get his load processed. He was probably getting paid per delivery.

“Sorry, traffic issues. How many you got,” I said.

“It’s a full truck, twelve heifers, about 36,000 pounds of meat. I have another couple runs to make today so let’s hurry up man.”

“Christ, your boss raise enough gemods?”

“He’s getting government dinero; some place in Africa or Asia is having a famine so we’re shipping the cube steak over there as part of a relief effort.”

“You guys sure make a killing with government cube don’t you?”

“I don’t, but the boss gets one greedy fucking look in his eye whenever the check comes from Washington. Pretty sure he rubs his dick on it before taking it to the bank,” laughed the trucker as he unbolted the trailer and swung open the doors.

Immediately, the earthy stink of gemods waiting to be processed struck my nostrils. Even though the animals came to us in square iron crates which looked like huge toy blocks, their smell permeated the trailer. The cows had been inside for the last portion of their lives. The genetic modification process caused them to produce more muscle mass which made the creatures too heavy for their legs. They couldn’t walk at all because their stubby nubs were covered under a ton of prime cut beef. The shit and piss was cleaned out to keep sores from developing all over their backsides, but still, you couldn’t wash the stink out of a gemod, and it was ten times the smell of a cow.

Covering my mouth, I grabbed the first cage. They were laid two across, and went to the back of the rig. Ball bearings lined the bottom of each container allowing them to be shoved around. I grabbed the handles and pulled while the trucker yanked the ramps out of his trailer bed. Inside there was a moo and I patted the metal box.

“Easy there girl. Not much longer,” I huffed, as I pushed the gemod inside the slaughterhouse. I put a finger through the hole used for air flow and scratched the gemod’s head. My touch elicited another quiet moo from the creature which twisted towards me.

“Take it easy,” I said as I grabbed the cattle gun, pressed it to the hole, and shot a steel rod through the gemod’s skull. As my right arm jolted back from the recoil I jabbed a pithing rod into the hole with my free hand, swishing it through the brains to make sure the gemod had died. Finally, I grabbed a knife, slid my hand into a hole by the gemod’s throat, and sliced the arteries and veins, letting a torrent of hot blood escape, beginning the drainage process. Finished, I sent the crate down the line to be processed watching it disappear behind the cloudy plastic flaps which separated the killing room from the rendering floor.

I killed cows for hours. One at a time, I brought them from the trucks, killed them, and sent the bodies on to be gutted, butchered, frozen, and packaged into cube steak. When the cows died they made an oof sound as the air left their lungs. It sounded like someone getting punched in the gut. I had been at Special Meats for two years and it was eerier to kill the gemod cows than other modified animals. Other things twitched, you could feel the life leaving them. Watching made you feel bad, but at least you knew. Cows didn’t have room to twitch. You had to listen, because you never saw the end, just the crate with its vacant black holes. Sometimes, the bones of their legs snapped as they slumped but that was all. Oof, then maybe a wet crunch. Those were the only signs. It seemed so pathetic. Such gigantic animals and all they could muster were those tiny sounds to let you know the job had been done right.

Still, this was one of my favorite jobs inside Special Meats. It was fairly clean. Sure, my arms were left caked with blood, but that was all. The days when I was tasked with rendering beef were awful. A normal cow is hoisted on a conveyor belt to be gutted and quartered. Gemods are too heavy for that. Cleaning out all four stomachs, the intestines, everything inedible means crawling inside the container and pulling everything out by hand. Rendering meant blood caked beneath my fingernails, inside my ears, up my nose, between the toes, and anywhere else it could dry. The butcher’s apron could only keep so much out. I kept a bunch of plastic bags in my car for rendering days. Two bags were for my shirt, pants, and socks. I’d sit on another couple bags and drive home in my soaking underwear as blood pooled beneath my nuts. On those days, my evenings were spent showering for an hour while the clothes took two tumbles in the washer.

Still, the check cleared and Alyssa and I were able to live comfortably. Keeping that in mind, I could kill gemods five days a week without any trouble.

After I said my goodbyes and harassed a few more people in the parking lot, I started the short drive back home to Shelburne. The angry sons and daughters of god weren’t there to harass me which I appreciated. I was hungry and didn’t much desire a half-hour delay being preached the sinfulness of my job, or how I was going to Hell. If the infinitely wise God didn’t want us tampering with our genetics, then he should’ve made us too dumb to figure out what we were made of. Alyssa always laughed at the old zealots. These were the same people who were eager to have all sorts of invasive surgeries to kill their cancers. They’d deny food to the starving, but used Medicare to ensure their lives continued uninterrupted. The hypocrisy was laughable.

I got home around six-thirty and put three chicken breasts in the oven. They weren’t gemod poultry. I made sure of that. Cows were just bred bigger, but chickens were pumped full of hormones so they’d mature from chick to adult in a week. Someone had also found a way to change chicken genetics so they were born featherless to cut out plucking. The cows I could handle, but the ugly naked chickens were fucking freaky. I shelled out for the more expensive free range birds.

Tom said he liked the gemod chickens because all the hormones made his wife’s tits bump from C cup to D. I never pointed out to the stupid bastard what that could mean to his little five year old girl. It would make a good joke in three years when he was sweating and crying at buying her a training bra before he’d taken off her training wheels.

Alyssa got home at seven just as I was sprinkling the last bit of seasoning on the breasts, and pouring a glass of water for each of us. She tossed her keys on the kitchen countertop and sat down heavily. She was still in her scrubs; her brown hair tied back in a tight ponytail. Each finger was stained with iodine and it dotted her forearms like patches of jaundice.

“Long day?” I asked, planting a kiss on her lips.

“Be happy you shoot cows all day,” she said, nipping my bottom lip.

“What happened?”

“We had a birth today and when Dr. Regosin gave the woman her baby she and the husband just flipped shit. Apparently, they wanted their child to have black hair and it looked kinda pale blonde instead. I was so pissed, the poor baby was crying and they were just yelling about the money they’d spent.”

“Christ, that’s awful.”

“I mean, they calmed down after a few minutes and the woman held her baby, but stuff like that just leaves a bad taste in my mouth, how do people like that get to have kids.”

“Obviously by having more money to throw around than a dumb cow killer and a nurse,” I said, wrapping my hands around her shoulders and rolling my thumbs up and down.

Alyssa sighed contently and leaned forward so I could do her whole back.

“I didn’t say you were getting a back rub.”

“You started one, now finish it.”

I worked over her upper back for a few minutes rubbing down the shoulder blades and across Alyssa’s spine. Her scrubs came off, and I started to work up from her tailbone. Alyssa’s shirt bunched against my wrists as I slipped my fingers beneath her bra. Her breathing was getting ragged so I pulled my hands around and cupped her breasts, kneading them.

“You are the worst masseuse,” she purred, “Just when my back starts to feel better you always start groping me.”

I gave Alyssa’s boobs a firm squeeze, “You sure you want me giving you a back massage?”

She pulled my hands out of her shirt and turned in her seat so I was looking straight at her. Then she kissed me.

“Should I go grab a condom?” I asked, and she pulled away. I knew I shouldn’t have mentioned the rubber; I should’ve just gone and grabbed it.

“You know how I feel,” Alyssa began.

“I do, but you could’ve changed your mind, seen a cute baby,” I replied.

Alyssa rolled her eyes, “I don’t want to go through it again Joel, I can’t.”

I sighed. We fought about medical stuff a lot now. We had already tried to have a baby and even gotten pregnant. A screening had revealed the fetus had Downs Syndrome and we aborted it. Ever since, Alyssa had been firm about using condoms whenever we had sex. Terminating the pregnancy had been hard on both of us, but I was ready to give it another shot. She held back though.

“I can’t change my DNA Alyssa. We both want children. We can adopt or do it naturally, but I’m seriously tired of feeling like my genes are defective.”

“I never said they were defective.”

“Then why are we using condoms again? We own a home and have jobs. Let’s just try again and see what happens.”

“What do we do if the next baby has Downs Syndrome too?”

“Maybe we could have it? I mean it might just have a mild case like Greg.”

“I’m not putting a child through that. You know how hard it is for Greg so don’t try to sugarcoat what our child’s life would be like with Downs Syndrome.”

“I still think it’s worth trying. I’m ready to be a father.”

An awkward silence followed before she reached out and grabbed my shoulders. I could smell iodine on her skin.

“Can I show you something?”


Quickly, she walked out to her car and returned with pamphlets in her hands. They looked like the ones put in convenience stores to attract tourists.

Alyssa took a deep breath. It was her convincing breath, her calm down and talk rationally breath, her say the wrong thing Joel and you’re not having sex for a week breath. I closed my mouth and opened my ears.

“They’ve been doing this thing at the hospital for parents who want to prevent diseases, but don’t want to do the designer baby process. They mix your DNA, take all the good traits from your sperm, strip out all that bad ones, and just add in DNA chains from anonymous donors where the breaks occur. I’ve seen the babies. They’re all healthy Joel,” she said, handing me a pamphlet.

I opened it up and stared at a man, his wife, and their baby. Below there was a lesbian and a gay couple with the same family dynamic. A Healthy Family Can Be Yours! was written at the bottom. I flipped the page and there were more facts and blurbs. Donors gave their sperm to banks. Then a machine spun them to pieces and the fragmented DNA got inserted into the broken sequences of the father’s good genes, just like Alyssa had said. There were pictures of the donors, grinning white men, black guys, an Asian. I smiled, realizing they’d gotten in a pamphlet for beating off into a cup.

“What do you think?” asked Alyssa, mistaking my smile for curiosity. She leaned in and put her head on my shoulder like she was reading along even though I knew she’d already read the whole thing at least three times.

“So they’d mash my sperm up with the sperm of a bunch of men and make some perfection cocktail out of it?” I asked, setting the pamphlet aside.

“It would be just like artificial insemination,” she said. “I just want the healthiest baby possible. This is good science.”

“It feels like it’s taking away part of me Alyssa. You get to have all of you in the baby. I’m going be all mixed up with men I don’t even know? Shit, I think I would feel better if you got a surrogate. At least then it would be a whole person.”

“I want you to be a part of this, you are my husband. I want your baby Joel.”

“Then let’s just have sex and see what happens. There are a million things that could go wrong. What if the donor sperm combines with mine and just produces a heart defect, or cystic fibrosis. There’s always going to be a risk, no matter how hard you try to minimalize it.”

“I can’t have another abortion. I just can’t do that to myself. Sorry I’m fucking selfish. I’d already named the baby Nicholas Sophia since I didn’t know if it was a boy or girl yet. I had to let my baby die, and you can’t even try to tell me you know what it felt like. You didn’t have the baby vacuumed out of you like a piece of trash! I’m not short-changing a child when there’s a better, safer option, and I’m not going to get another abortion Joel.”

And then she cried. They weren’t crazy uncontrollable sobs like the ones which shook me when my dad died; they were angry tears. It was her anger at me for resisting and my sperm for holding flaws. They were her anger at the sheer randomness of natural genetics which had given our fetus Downs Syndrome and forced her to feel it aborted.

They did look happy, all those families. I knew that poor Aunt Jenifer and Greg were a real burden to their families even though they both had jobs. I loved Alyssa and wanted to have a kid with her. She was right though, I wouldn’t feel the loss of another baby the same way she would. The baby she wanted though, it would be a composite of Alyssa, myself, and some assholes who’d jerked off for twenty bucks. It felt wrong.

“I’ll think about the procedure,” I said.

“Really, you’re sure?”

“No! I’m not, but I know this shit bothers you, so let’s look into it,” I grumbled.

The tears were gone and her lips were on mine. We had sex on top of the pamphlets. I couldn’t look at those pictures; see those men with their shit-eating grins. One of them could be co-dad with me.

I left early the next morning, chasing the night away as I ate a bowl of raisin bran. I was out the door when the first elongated yawn came from our bedroom.

Things were quiet on the drive in. Not even a single Methodist, Baptist, Evangelical, or Roman Catholic was out protesting. It was almost annoying. I could’ve used a roadblock. I was ready to be a dad, had been ready almost as soon as Alyssa and I had married. The abortion had derailed everything. Yet now, there was this solution and all I could feel was how much I didn’t want what she’d so wholeheartedly embraced. I felt like I was watching my baby die. Maybe I would’ve accepted some anonymous sperm donor, but dozens? Christ, whose baby would she be having? Would there be a doctor to come in and say the baby was 64% mine? 81%, 39%? A healthy baby was all that mattered, that’s what my dad had always said. It was true; all you wanted was a healthy baby. The percent shouldn’t matter. But dad had known we were 100% his children.

I slammed on the breaks. I’d come into the parking lot too fast and nearly took out a stop sign with my turn.

“Nice driving, Joel,” cracked Tom, sucking on his cigarette.

“Here give me a puff,” I said ignoring his weak jab at my parking.

“I didn’t think you smoked,” he said, offering me a drag.

I had maybe ten minutes before my shift started. I prayed Glen would keep me away from the rendering floor. I wanted something mindless so I could think without being elbow deep in guts. I prayed for packaging and vacuum sealing beef, or killing gemods.

Tom gave me weird looks as I puffed away thinking about Alyssa and those damn pamphlets. After all the years of torment I’d dished out he was afraid to ask if I was alright. I didn’t want to talk though, just think. Tom was a good guy, but I didn’t want his advice. He was my coworker, not my buddy. He stood around, flopping around for something to say until I flicked the cigarette butt on the blacktop and went to work.

Mercifully, Glen assigned me to work with a trainee offloading and killing gemods. For two hours I pressed the steel tube to the opening, hit the button and listened as they slumped against the metal of their cubical cells. I let the trainee cover himself in blood slitting throats. My thoughts took me nowhere though, and I fell into a rhythm of feeling shitty and killing cows.

Just before noon, I pressed the cattle-gun to the crate and clicked the trigger. The rod shot out and a groan of pain shook the crate. I froze. This was a new sound, a pained sound, full of life.

“Shit,” I muttered.

Some jackass, some idiot farmhand, had put the gemod in wrong. The head wasn’t facing the hole. I hadn’t hit the brain. The rod had gone through someplace else.

I ran into Glen’s office. He kept a pry bar and hammer in there to open up the crates. I found the two foot bar and cobalt steel hammer pretty quick and ran back to the animal which was throwing its weight around clumsily. The new guy was standing with the next gemod which was aggravated listening to the wounded animal.

“Move,” I grunted, picking up the cattle-gun and shooting the second gemod before it could get too stressed out.

“Get that thing out of here,” I said, thrusting the pithe and a knife into the trainee’s hand.

The guy, stood dumb for a minute so I shoved him to get him moving down the line.

With the new kid gone, I sunk the bar into the container’s side and gave it a few good cracks. Heaving and shoving I popped the side off, jumping out of the way as it crashed onto the corrugated metal floor.

Inside was a normal looking gemod, about five feet tall and shaped like its square container. I’d shot the poor animal through the side, just below the spine and it groaned in pain as I approached. Blood seeped from the wound I’d inflicted. The poor animal had been shoved in sideways. I could just see the edge of its dopey eyes and there was no way I could reach around the body to put a rod through its brain.

“Easy girl, easy,” I muttered, petting the animal which shivered at my touch. I grabbed a haunch and tried to shift the thing around, but it was too heavy to turn.

“Fuck,” I said, grabbing the cattle-gun and stretching towards the head even though I knew I couldn’t reach. With the crowbar I started to work at the other side, closer to the gemod’s face. I got the crate open and grabbed the cattle-gun.

I looked into its eyes then. They were set too far apart like every gemod. Its tongue was hanging out, making it look even dumber. The neck muscles were too thick to allow much range of movement, but it still twisted away when I stuck the gun between its eyes. I don’t know why I was hesitating. This was a gemod. It couldn’t breed; it couldn’t even fucking walk. They were raised to die, that’s all they were good for. This creature would provide twice the meat that a normal heifer or bull could. It was good science.

I put my other hand up and rubbed the stupid squat muzzle of the gemod. It turned its head and mooed quietly like a normal cow. I pulled the trigger and a little blood spattered my lips. The cow’s head slumped and I grabbed the two remaining sides of the crate and shoved the dead animal through to be processed. The trainee had my pithe and knife. He could mash the brains and slash the cow’s throat. I just couldn’t.

My shift ended without any other troubles. All the other crates had been handled properly, and I killed a couple dozen more gemods before the bell rang. On the drive home I passed a truck carting more animals to be processed by the night shift. A smiling cow was emblazoned on the trailer.

The animals weren’t good for anything other than to die and feed people. That gemod, it wasn’t even good for itself. It hadn’t lived, just grown. I thought about the pamphlet. I wasn’t any good to Alyssa either. I would serve my purpose as the main template of our baby, and she would get exactly what she wanted. She could shop around for whatever sperm satisfied her desires. My own testicles weren’t my own anymore. They would be purified, scrubbed of all their imperfections, and then polished with another man’s seed. The sequences that had made dad die of liver failure, the code that gave Greg his Downs Syndrome, all gone. My DNA wasn’t good enough anymore.

I got home and put dinner on the table. It was leftover chicken from the night before. Alyssa came home and I sat her down. My fingernails were still edged with blood while her arms were spotted with iodine. We both carried a unique, repellent odor. Still, I held tightly to her hands and told her I didn’t care if we adopted or used a single sperm donor, but I couldn’t stomach letting my baby be pruned and clipped until it fit our parameters for a perfect child.

I wanted the flaws, even if they were relics of an uncertain way of living. Every day Alyssa birthed the products of good science, and every day I killed them. I am stupid for wanting to fight progress, for wanting my baby to be born in mortal danger from its own genetic code, but I can’t live with the alternative.

Matthew Shoen lives in Lisbon, New York. He recently received a Bachelor’s Degree in English and History from St. Lawrence University and will be published later this year by Astrid Press. He enjoys horror video games and movies, Russian literature, and is addicted to watching professional wrestling and Buffalo Sabres hockey games.

Dotted Line