A Night in Purgatory

By Ilija Aščić

Translated By Marija Perišić

A Night in Purgatory/ Škola novog poretka was originally published in Croatian at http://knjizevnostuzivo.org/2018/mislav-pasini-skola-novog-poretka/.

 


 

It happened in my second week as a temporary worker at the chicken slaughterhouse. How and why I wound up there is a long story. I’d arrive at work after an hour-long streetcar ride, around nine in the evening, and the first thing I’d have to deal with was the security guard, a fat old fuck who’d take five minutes to copy my name in the visitors’ book.

 

“Them’s the rules,” he’d say, giving me a look over his glasses as if I were an ordinary piece of shit. When I told him he’d already put my name down in his book at least five times, he said, “Only the permanently employed get inside without being entered into the records.”

 

The lousy old fuck! He was right at the bottom of the totem pole, ready to suck the dick of any passing foreman, but he had to remind me I was even lower than him. A temporary worker is less than nothing—here today, gone tomorrow—while he’d been on the job for ten years. It suited him fine to have someone to look down on. That’s your solidarity among the working classes.

 

“If they offer you a permanent job,” he said sternly, “you’ll get a pass, and I won’t have to ID you every night.”

 

“Bite your tongue,” I thought, because I’d rather have hanged myself than become a fixture at a place like that, like he was. I still believed in the dream of escape and that somehow I’d dig myself out. Then again, everyone believes that. No one expects to spend their life at a shitty, miserably paid job. Once you make peace with it—with being a night guard or a slaughterhouse cleaner—you’re done.

 

I’d go to the slaughterhouse, pull on my waterproof gear and a pair of high, rubber boots, and clean the place till six in the morning. Night shifts were fine with me because at night, there were no bosses and similar psychopaths around, so the unpleasantness was narrowed down to just the work. In the case of a slaughterhouse, that’s plenty enough. Any idea how much blood is left over after they process the usable parts? Yuck! And all of it has to be scrubbed off, the machines washed and cleaned, and the smell, my God, the smell … gets into your every pore until you know you’ll never feel clean again. That kind of work is death to a person. I’m not even kidding—it’s worse, like permanent dying or being stuck in purgatory except there’s no such thing as salvation. There’s only walking through that door again, going to your own slaughter, entering a world of shades and apparitions straight out of Dante, where the outside ceases to exist, and even in the morning, when you come out, you take it all with you. No wonder no one does it but those who have nothing to sell but muscle and time. And those who still haven’t figured out how things stand on our work market. In other words, the not very bright and the shit out of luck. No women, as a rule—only washed-out middle-aged men who’ll agree to anything to keep a roof over their heads. Their brighter mates, with their foxlike instincts and family connections, have long secured cushy posts somewhere else. They teach in high schools or sit behind government desks or else they’re something or other in NGOs, from which lofty position they complain about being surrounded by philistines.

 

Me, I worked at the chicken slaughterhouse. Drunk every night because it was the only way I could handle the job. Alone, at least for the first week or so, which was nice. I’d make it through my tasks just in time for the shift turnover, then treat myself to a morning coffee in the bar across the street. Already on the second week, I was joined by another guy. I was just taking off my shoes when he popped up in front of me like an overgrown sprite. That’s another thing with shitty jobs—you have co-workers, and they’re typically fuckwits. They’ll make your life hell even if the job is easy. You get blowhards, backstabbers, all sorts . . . but the worst have got to be those who can’t stop talking. As if anyone wants to listen to boring old men beaten at life. I, for one, never want to get to know them, become their workmate or friend or enemy, grab a beer with them after work, or come to their place for a barbecue on a Sunday afternoon. I don’t care about their kids’ kindergartens, where they went for a vacation, what they thought of the football game last week, and especially how much they’re aghast at the latest news of a thieving politician. These doofuses will bore you to death with their moral outrage, but in the next breath, they’ll show you they’d let you starve because it “ain’t their problem.” But hey, that’s just how it is. People who know me say I’m “dark” and “negative” and that human beings aren’t as bad as I think. Sometimes they even tell me “You don’t like people!” as if that were an unforgivable sin. Well, it’s true. I don’t. An average person is a horror I don’t want to be anywhere near. Someone else might look at them and see hidden depth or beauty—not me. I see mostly identical copies of one another, the living dead, and the sparks in their souls have been replaced by pettiness and the will to pull shit behind your back—a disease they’ll happily pass on to you, too. Need to survive working with them for longer than a week? Prepare to be brazen, unscrupulous, and ready to get in a fight over any small thing—better still, be ready to recognize when there’s nothing to do but turn on your heel and walk out. In life we may all be just weirdoes, but faced with death, we’re allowed to say the truth.

 

While we were still in the locker room, the new guy paused and pointed his finger at me like he had something very important to say.

 

“Hey, where you from?”

 

As questions go, I feel that’s like “How much cash do you have in your bank account?” or “What’s the size of your dick?” Not that I have any dark secrets to hide, but come the fuck on. I’ve spent my whole life trying to get away from that inbred nonsense—the blood and soil shtick and the supposed ties of country and family. I’m no one’s rodijak and I really, truly don’t care where in the world you came out of a vagina. Still, if you’re in a shitty workplace, try to act as if you’re above the rest of them, and they’ll fuck you up in no time. They’ll puncture your tires or put a dead rat in your jacket pocket or get to you in some other way. It’s easier to tell them which rock you came out from under, and they can do with the info as they please. I told the new guy where I was from—an obscure part of Bosnia, a mountain village forsaken by both the devil and God. I thought that’d be the end of it, but he gave a delighted shout.

 

“I knew it! I could tell by your name!”

 

As it turned out, he was from a neighboring village. We were homies, he and I, presumably destined to share a secret language and look out for each other in the world. Mato Pejić—that was his name. He had a potato face and an accent like he’d only left his village last week.

 

The moment we entered the house of death, he began to talk about “life.” That is, about all the meaningless shit that preoccupies the low and middle classes—trivial concerns about kids and car repairs, the wife’s nagging about the dishes and the toilet seat, a psycho boss, a deranged mother-in-law, a paycheck that’s always late and never lasts long enough, home mortgages, car payments, and kids’ birthday parties. He was forty-five, a vet of the 90s war, married with three children, working at this same slaughterhouse for the past five years. Living a life of quiet desperation. So was I, only in a different way. My soul craved width and breadth, sunshine and open spaces, yet here I was, listening to him. It almost seemed to me life was made up of listening to other people’s stories—stories that had no rhyme or reason, and still you had to sit through them. Even now, I’m not sure why. It’s not like I go around boring people with whether goodness is the same thing as righteousness. I don’t think it is, by the way, which most Platonists won’t agree with, but that’s a debate for another time. I’ve long given up on the idea that the masses could be led out of the cave. Besides, who cares? Just let them stay away from me.

 

We moved from room to room, scrubbing the floors and washing the walls and the machines, and all the while he told me his story, which was like all the others I’d heard—pretty dull, but still I listened, and anyhow, in situations like these, you can’t expect to be talking to Plato or Epicurus. He’d pause only to catch his breath, then pick up where he’d left off. The noise of the rubber hoses we used for cleaning began to drown out his words, but once he figured out I could no longer hear him, he leaned over and yelled in my ear. “I’ll kill him,” I thought. “I swear I will.” I’m not a cruel type—I only wish to be left alone—but what do you call what they do to me? Slice my soul with a dull knife, cut off pieces till there’s be nothing left, at which point they’ll say, “It was life that did it! Happens every time!” Just for a change, why don’t I get stuck with some hot young thing—a clever, free-spirited chick who’d banter with me all night long and go home with me for a cup of coffee and a round of relaxing, no-strings sex? Not my luck, of course. You don’t meet chicks like that at dead-end jobs. The decent ones are always hanging on the arm of some conceited jerk who works in advertising, drives a Civic, and has a sense of humor, while I get to clean gore with a dunce who doesn’t have an off switch. I imagined turning my hose on him like a barrel of a gun, shooting him in the face just to stop his drivel. Alternatively, I pictured putting his head in the chicken-killing machine and cutting it off. The newspaper article practically wrote itself: “Washed up writer murders workmate from neighboring village, cuts him to tiny pieces! He was arrested while having a beer in the bar across the street. The reason for the spat between the two underprivileged workers remains unknown.” Ah, the good old revenge fantasies! People have been dragging me down my entire life—wouldn’t it be great if, just this once, I got back at them for real?

 

After he told me everything about his home, family, kids, and kidney stones, he got to his time in the war. “God almighty,” I thought, “don’t let him start with that.” As a kid, I’d heard all the war stories I could wish for—so many I’d become terminally bored with them. I’ve no more patience for the subject, no matter how dreadful and tragic it really is. Everything about it has been worn out and spent, told and retold a thousand times. Plus you have stories that are nothing but bragging and exaggeration. I wasn’t in the mood for yet another ninja who’d singlehandedly slaughtered ten armed chetniks and blown up their tanks. I was young, but I’d been around the front lines myself and seen a lot with my own eyes. I could tell immediately when someone was lying.

 

“Listen, man”—I tried stopping him before he could begin with the bullshit.

 

But Mato paused in front of me and put his huge paw on my arm—a gesture that really gets on my nerves. He looked me in the eye and told me about the night he got stuck behind the enemy lines with a group of other soldiers. It was so dark they had no idea where they were until they realized they were surrounded by the Serbian army. By the time they figured it out, there was no way back. All they could do was lie low and wait for the others to go away. Huddled in the darkness, clutching his rifle, Mato shat himself—literally—after which he had to keep still for hours with a turd in his pants.

 

“Since then,” he said, “whenever I think something’s hard, I remember that night, and I think, ‘Who am I kidding? Everything’s easy!’ Even this stinking job.”

 

We kept cleaning till morning and finally finished around 6 a.m. I was so tired I barely dragged my feet. We went back to the locker room, took off our rubber gear, and put on our street clothes. There weren’t any showers, so we still stank like biowaste, and even if we’d had a chance to shower, it wouldn’t have made much difference. We sat in front of the slaughterhouse and had a smoke. The dawn was just breaking. The workers on the morning shift began to arrive. One by one, they emerged from the semi-darkness like ghosts. It was weird to see other people again, especially at that place. At night, everything looks different, bereft of purpose and surreal, like a space outside of space, a time of its own, where people and things aren’t the same as they are in daylight.

 

When we finished our cigarettes, Mato offered to drive me home. I accepted because it was easier than waiting for an early-morning streetcar. We rode down the empty streets in his battered Vectra. I told him where I lived, so he drove me to New Zagreb. There my dump waited for me—a filthy rented apartment with half a cheap salami in the fridge, a three-day-old loaf of bread, two cans of beer, and a broken water heater.

 

When I went to get out of the car, Mato grabbed my arm.

 

“Listen,” he said, “do you need some cash? You look like you haven’t eaten in a week.”

 

It wasn’t far from the truth. I looked like something that was let out of Chernobyl through a sewer pipe.

 

“Meh,” I said.

 

He fetched his wallet from the glove compartment, took out a two-hundred-kuna bill, and held it out to me. I was twenty seven, and no one had given me any money in ten years. Not friends, not parents, and not any of my brood of useless relatives. I stared at the money, at a loss for what to do. I knew how crass it would be to take it. I reached for it just the same. Shameless, I know. I’m a mean and ungrateful person. It’s just who I am.

 

“Dude,” I said, just in case, “I’m not your basic decent guy.”

 

“Who is?” He shrugged. “See you tomorrow night.”

 

I got out of the car and closed the door, and he started the engine and drove away. I watched his old Vectra disappear down the street. With the cash in my pocket, I headed to the neighborhood bar, which was just opening. It was too early to go home. I needed a decent cup of coffee to help me unwind. Besides, I felt strange. But the moment I mixed in with the people and the slaughterhouse stench reached their nostrils, their looks of disgust hit my back, and I felt normal again. Mean and nasty. The way I like to be.

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