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Online Feature: “A Dark and Simple Place” by Adrienne Perry

When Uncle Richie finally moved out, he left Cheyenne and headed south for Greeley, Colorado. Richie wasn’t known for fresh starts, but Greeley promised dividends he hadn’t touched in years: a room of his own, steady work, lunch breaks. Maybe a union. He got a job at Monforts meatpacking plant—Monfort, actually, but Richie pluralized it.

In the early nineties, Greeley was anathema to me, as bad a hick town as Cheyenne, my hometown. Greeley had a trademark funk that blighted its squat banks and convenience stores. A little hopeless, the place made me feel, with that sad-angry smell seeping out of Monforts’ boxy white buildings and the machines inside them that transformed lowing livestock into stroganoff meat. Work in a slaughterhouse—that was hard for me to imagine, and I couldn’t picture Richard Riles suiting up over his Bart Simpson t-shirt and ripped Levi’s, his graying Afro pressed against a cheap shower cap. He didn’t have the constitution.

 

Meatcutting Testbook, Part I.*

It is recommended that this book be kept
in the instructor’s file
and each test be detached
and given to the student
as he or she becomes ready for it.

When I tell people I’m from Wyoming, I usually get one of two responses. One: “You’re the first person I’ve ever met from Wyoming,” to which I usually reply, “Well, there aren’t a lot of us.” Two: “You’re the first black person I’ve ever met from Wyoming,” to which it is also appropriate to reply, “Well, there aren’t a lot of us.”

Next: “What was it like?” Or, “It must be so cold there.”

But people don’t want to know about the weather, or not for long. How to answer the first question without sounding glib or frustrated or sentimental? It was like what it was like. Because most people have rarely seen or imagined black folks in this landscape, there’s an assumption made about us and our history, and, you know, racial politics in the East feel way more —but I tire too quickly, am too jangled, to finish the sentence. Much easier to say, “Where I’m from, it’s hard to get lost once you know the Rocky Mountains are dead west.”

 

It took less than twelve minutes to hit the Colorado border, but we rarely ventured south. Before I got my driver’s license, the only reason I’d cross the state line or travel to Greeley was to join my father on his weekly pilgrimage to buy scratch-off and lottery tickets. Dad figured scratch-offs, Keno, and multimillion-dollar Lotto jackpots gave luck the chance it needed to catch up with him. Dressed in dark blue Wranglers and a Hawaiian shirt bursting with hibiscus flowers, his Jheri curl juiced, my father would cram his long legs behind the wheel of our gray Ford Taurus, pop in a Teddy Pendergrass tape, and discuss the afternoon’s strategy: what tickets and how many he would buy where.

 

For these trips, Dad preferred South Greeley Highway to I-25. Traveling on a back road hugged by grasslands, we fantasized about what we would do with the money we were going to win. A brief stay at The Sands in Las Vegas and then on to LA for me. Dad planned to keep his riches secret, sitting on the cash until shiftless friends and distant, trifling relatives crawled back into their holes. The bank would finally get off his ass. Work for the railroad? That might become a hobby, a side gig to pay for Pierre Cardin shirts or vacations to Winnipeg. We had to get out and see the world.

Flying past the Clown’s Den, Cheyenne’s out-of-the-way strip club, we would arrive at our first Colorado stop, a gas station plus café in Rockport. A high plains outpost with a bar, good cheese burgers, and a cola for me, Dad’s palms always started itching in Rockport—the signal that money was coming. In the café parking lot, sitting in the car, our quarters would scrape the tickets, silvery shavings falling onto the floor mats while we scanned for winners. Anything? Nothing. Keep going.

From Rockport: towns where grain silos sprouted up beside train tracks and lone traffic lights flashed red at all hours. Somewhere out there, Holly Sugar’s sugar beets grew underground and the brown and orange A&W sign told us we were getting close. Another five minutes and I could roll down the window and inhale Monforts’ wonder- horror: the hair and blood and all that’s inevitable about killing but hard to sell.

 

Meatcutting Testbook, Part I.

4. When hands become soiled,
they should be
wiped on: 1. The trousers
2. The coat 3. The apron.
2. A towel

 

In 1848, a man walked cleanly off of a Mississippi riverboat. He was an escaped slave from Virginia fleeing west to Chicago. When he reached Chicago, the man took the name Ford. By 1870 Barney Ford had founded Cheyenne’s Inter-Ocean Hotel, a watering hole and cultural oasis in a frontier outpost. The Inter-Ocean hosted opera singers and dignitaries, cattle rustlers and travelers on their way to Denver or Deadwood.

Two decades later, Wyoming would become a state, and a hundred years after the Inter-Ocean opened, my father fled to Cheyenne. He had been living in Fort Collins, Colorado, attending cosmetology school. Tall and knock-kneed, in tight polyester pants and dashikis, he fancied himself a player, so cosmetology made sense. Besides, his mother had done hair back in Riverside, California and he liked women, including this new girl in Fort Collins.

One night he returned from school to an empty, ransacked apartment: A galaxy of shattered glass on the living room floor. Jackets and socks, shoes and button downs scattered like buckshot across the bedroom. The motherfuckers had even killed his dog and left him in the kitchen. A woman or money? Some petty insult the cause of all this shit. He stuffed a change of clothes into a duffel bag, scooped up his money, and walked-ran to the nearest gas station. Persuasion and a handful of cash would have to be enough to buy a car no one would recognize him in. Few people could have managed it, and my father was one of them. He soon sped north along the interstate in new used wheels, heading to Cheyenne to see his friend Richard Riles.

My father, Excell Perry Jr., and Richard Riles met in Cheyenne years earlier, as day laborers at Benams Pressed Concrete. When he introduced my parents to one another, Uncle Richie had ditched Benams and a bunch of other jobs. Richie was working with my mother on a Head Start program designed to turn a downtown pool hall into a community center. My mother was a shy, sociology major with lean, muscular legs, a white girl with bone straight hair parted down the middle, and bookshelves lined with titles like Soul on Ice and When They Come in the Morning. Dad said she knew what she was working with.

Excell and Kay spent two days together before she left to visit a cousin in Loveland. Dad paced Richie’s apartment while she was gone, or he waited at the window, chain smoking Pall Malls. This went on for days. “Man, you driving me crazy,” Richie said and got a motel room. My father couldn’t help it. Kay Bechtold was the first person he ever missed. Whenever he told the story he would say, “Your mamma was my Waterloo.”

 

Meatcutting Testbook, Part I.

When used in regard to cattle, the term shrink refers to the:
1. Time between stunning and sticking
an animal 2. Difference
between the weight of
an animal with and without its
hide

 

Black folks came west, whether through intention or accident. Slaves fled the South and sued for their freedom. Laundresses saving money beneath winter petticoats. Midwives, cowboys, ranchers, politicians. Coal miners near Hanna, Wyoming. A group of dashing men, part of a cavalry escort in Montana and Wyoming, posing among ponderosas and spruce, their hats tipped rakishly to the side, pale scarves draped around their necks in the manner of dandies. Uncle Richie’s arrival in Cheyenne circa 1970 is a mystery, however.

While my father served two tours in Vietnam, Richie was in Joliet Prison serving time for larceny, and he said Joliet was war enough. Joliet’s first prisoners quarried the limestone and built the prison onsite. Even after the advent of indoor plumbing, slop buckets were standard, making Joliet medieval well into the 20th century. When he got out, did Richie wander back to Chicago, then down to Colorado like Ford? Was Cheyenne a good place to hide?

 

3. Difference in the weight
of a carcass before
and after cooling 4.
Weight lost by
Cattle while
Fasting before slaughter

 

Richie’s Chicago neighborhood required knowing how to fight, but Joliet turned him into a boxer. At night, Richie would shadowbox in our kitchen. Wiry and quick, his footwork was a creative, backward and forward dance punctuated by a clean right hook. He watched his reflection on the stove, loved the seeing his muscles reflected in black glass. Whap, Pow, Pop: a synchronization of sound effects and punches.

Scrawny, teased mercilessly at school—I guess that’s why Uncle Richie took me aside and gave me a lesson. “I don’t care what anyone says, there’s no such thing as a fair fight.” Richie coiled his long, elegant fingers into a fist. I copied. “You get into a fight, do everything you can to win. You’ll never see a fair fight. Poke their eyes out,” he said, forming a V with two fingers. “Any sand around? Throw it in their face. You can always kick guys in the balls and run.”

Richie sounded rough, but he was a pacifist and there were only two people he hated with any passion: Lou Rawls and Ronald Reagan. Most of the time, Uncle Richie sat quietly at our round, wooden kitchen table or in the basement by the coal furnace where, twice a month, a Gem Coal Company truck would drive up to the house, lower a chute, and fill a small room with coal. My mother maintained the furnace, trudging down to the basement to clean out the ashes made by the bright hot burning.

On a folding chair with his legs crossed at the thigh, Richie sat in the dark, the furnace’s hot coals and the glow of Winston cigarettes lighting up his plumy cheeks and the gray carnations blooming out from his widow’s peak.

In the southeast corner of the house, in a basement dug from grasslands once ruled by the Arapahoe—before the railroad, before the cattle barons and women’s suffrage, when Cheyenne was nothing but dirt, wind, and sky—there within that cave Richie could watch over a coffee can stuffed with money, replay Ali’s fight with Foreman, or contemplate Revelations, his favorite book of The Bible.

 

Meatcutting Testbook, Part I.

A market buys two
veal calves that weigh 89 ½
lbs. and 98 ¼ lbs.,
including their skins. The skins
weigh 8 ¾ lbs. and 9 ½
lbs., respectively.

 

A few years before my birth, Uncle Richie moved into our two-story house on the corner of 25th and Evans Avenue. Ancient by Wyoming standards, in the early 1900s our historic foursquare housed an admired judge and other members of Cheyenne’s well-to- do. By the 1970s, shag carpet gathered dirt in the living room and the house held the OK- to-do.

As she peeled away thick layers of wallpaper, my mother uncovered ladies with parasols lounging beneath willows. Terriers with bows around their necks ran among tufted grass. There were dark paisley prints with teal curlicues and a thin gold line. In the entryway, a stained-glass window filtered rainbows onto the floor. Woodwork as finely crafted as the inside of a pocket watch embellished banisters, moldings, the ceiling. From the foundations, the yard ran into the arms of a broken down 1958 Cadillac, rowdy pigweed, and all manner of wonders: lumps of pink granite as big as hams, a Dutch elm towering above roofs, a headstone swiped from the Lakeview Cemetery down the street.

These details did not matter. It was just a house, a safe place, where Richie slept on the couch next to our dog Tippy, Richie’s dentures airing out on the armrest. He moved in to get back on his feet. A two-week visit turned into a month, a month into a season, a season into a year, and on until more than a decade passed. By then, everyone could see Richie was standing, in ripped up sneakers, but standing nonetheless.

 

The highest accident
rate in the meat business
occurs among workers
in the age group:

 

Richie didn’t want a big send off. He loaded his clothes and a few boxes into a banged-up Toyota Celica. “Alright, see ya,” he said, waving as he drove toward downtown and South Greeley Highway.

Two days later, the school bus dropped me off at the stop near Hutchins Flowers and Tri-State Memorial, the headstone engravers stationed across from the Lakeview Cemetery. As I got closer to home, the front fender, stout grill, and headlights of Richie’s Toyota came into view—a robot face in my imagination.

A rangy juniper shaded the car; a pair of yellowed long underwear hung over the front seat. Otherwise, it looked like nothing had been removed. What had happened?

At the kitchen table, Richie drank a mug of coffee. There was a rolled up peanut butter and margarine sandwich next to a full ashtray. He was almost done with one pack of cigarettes, but an unopened pack lay beside.

I threw my backpack down near the door. “Hey Richie.”

“Hey Age.”

“Anyone else home?”

“Your mom’s at church.”

I yanked open the cupboards and snatched down a bowl. There was a box of Safeway brand Fruit Loops I didn’t plan on sharing. “What happened at Monforts?”

Richie dipped his sandwich into the coffee and took a bite. His dentures slid as he mashed up the wet bread. “Nothing.”

“How was it?”

“Nasty.”

“That bad?”

He nodded his smooth brown head.

“Thought it was supposed to be a good job.”

“For folks who can stand it.” The orange ember of one dying cigarette lit the next.

“Not for you, huh?”

“Naw, that shit ain’t for me.”

 

How could the man who smuggled skunk, chinchilla, and badger hides into the basement, who spread those hides across a worktable, who pushed thick needles in and out of their skin, not handle Monforts for more than two days? Even my sister Geneva and I had snuck into the basement to stick our fingers through the animals’ empty eye sockets, wiggling them like worms. We harvested road kill off of Cheyenne’s streets, fascinated by wingless robins and brown squirrels with intestines trailing out of their mouths. Monforts wasn’t what he thought. I drank the sweetened, fruity milk from my cereal bowl. Uncle Richie drained his coffee cup, rose from the table without a word, and headed down into the basement. I knew where Richie was, could feel it. By the furnace. Smoking, withdrawing like an animal that has dug a hole to heal itself, to tend itself inside the hollow of a dark and simple place.

 

My mother later told me Monforts assigned Richie to the blood tank. Who designs these things, these ingenious ways for killing and then making it look as though we haven’t?

When asked how my father and Uncle Richie died, I don’t know what to say. It’s been years now. Natural causes—but that hardly seems accurate, given the context.

*

Notes
_________________________________

* All offset quotations are quoted and adapted from:

“Strazicich, Mirko, and Sacramento. California State Dept. of Education. Meatcutting

Testbook, Part I. n.p.: 1981. ERIC. Web. 10 Jan. 2015.

*

This story appeared in Indiana Review 37.2, Winter 2015.

Anna Cabe (Nonfiction Editor): “A Dark and Simple Place” begins with Adrienne Perry’s Uncle Richie’s new job at a meatpacking plant and veers into a deconstruction of the myth of the American West—a myth that has consistently flattened or disappeared the presence of Black people. In this compressed yet wide-ranging essay, Perry uses the history of her family, the movement of her father and his friend, Uncle Richie, across the West, to show us, “It was like what it was like.”

*

Adrienne Perry grew up in Wyoming, earned her MFA from Warren Wilson College in 2013, and is a PhD candidate in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Houston. From 2014-2016 she served as the Editor of Gulf Coast: A Journal of Literature and Fine Arts. A Hedgebrook alumna, she is also a Kimbilio Fellow and a member of the Rabble Collective. Adrienne’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Copper Nickel, Black Warrior Review, Ninth Letter, Tidal Basin Review, and elsewhere. She is at work on a novel and a collection of essays.

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