By Corey Miller
We grab them, search for their privates, judge their weight, peer into their eyes. I applied to be a sexer because it didn’t require a high school diploma. I was the only one who applied.
My Ex and I had our son, Constantine, junior year of high school so I couldn’t keep up with the lessons. Constantine should be at an age where he speaks clear words, but I can’t understand what he babbles.
“How do you know which to save?” I ask my mentor. The chicks arrive by the thousand— crowded in stacked trays like bread racks, tall enough to hold captive. Their chirps are a constant alarm ringing.
“Look at their primary feathers. The females’ are usually longer than the coverts. If you can’t tell that way, you’ll have to vent sex.” He squeezes one until it shits in a cup then points to the anal cavity bulging out. “In the lower rim, there’s a pimple looking thing if it’s a male.”
He sets the male on a conveyor belt moving into the next room. They don’t let the sexers in the next room. For all I know, Constantine could be playing in the next room instead of waiting at his mother’s until I get my turn with him.
I have custody on weekdays after work, every other week. My Ex delivers him to my porch like a package. He likes watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles so I bought him all the characters. My favorite growing up was Donatello; he only had a stick to fight with, yet managed to keep up with the blades. Constantine likes April O’Neal, the turtles’ news reporting friend with an Easter-yellow jumpsuit and wattle-red hair. He dances in front of the TV with his April figure, entranced by the changing images, yipping and stammering what April believes the people should be made aware of. I wish to stay informed.
I test my grip on these chicks, making them shit and examining their cloaca pits, where intestinal and genital tracts meet. The female conveyor belt herds them into trays that the nurturers carry to cages. They’re fed blended brown mush to breed them as boilers and egg-layers.
It’s astounding what limited space is considered “Free Range.”
Under the artificial lighting, the conveyor belt soothes the females, cooing the soon-to-be mothers. They all sound the same. The one chirping in my palm has a small eminence and could be either sex. I’m told I’ll learn to determine these difficult cases after enough instruction. I compress foam ear plugs into my ears and fall behind watching this male ride the moving pathway to the next room — windowless and muted. I tilt my head, watching the opaque flaps wash over the male newborns as they exit.
This chick in my hand is tricky. I think it’s a cockerel, but what if it’s a pullet? I’m told in Japan the record is 1,682 chicks sexed without mistakes in an hour. I put this chick on the female belt and wait to hear what it decides to grow into.
When I get home from work, I feed Constantine chicken nuggets. Working at the plant, I get them for free. I switch from the news to the channel that streams old cartoons, the ones I had when I was a boy. Constantine make-believe feeds April. I’ve given up pushing Donatello on him. Everyone gives Donny shit for wearing purple and being the tech-nerd of the group. Everyone criticized me for liking him.
My Ex wanted to host a gender reveal party for extra gifts when she was pregnant—lunch money from our classmates. We distributed colored-confetti poppers to pull on the count of three. Those three seconds, surrounded by acne and hope, felt like purgatory.
Constantine mumbles something important, food spitting from his mouth. He takes after me, unable to speak up. I squeeze the plastic Donatello, hiding in his shell, until the creases in my hand bruise, trying to comprehend what Constantine is wanting to tell me.
“Is it possible for a chick to be both sexes? Or maybe neither?” I ask my mentor.
“I’ve heard of a case where an egg-laying hen stopped production then learned to crow,” he replies.
I wonder how long my mentor has been doing this, but I don’t question him.
I take my lunch break and notice the door to the next room is ajar. I peak inside and see the males following the conveyor belt that leads to nowhere. They drop off the edge, unable to fly yet, and fall into a shredder, filling a vat in the basement to be recycled.
My Ex ended our relationship because I didn’t propose when she was pregnant. Her family members are conservative Christians and made most of her decisions then. They named the baby before delivery, as it would be fitting for a boy or a girl. They blame me for not baptizing our baby. But my Ex understood my anxiety about going through with it. How I brooded over the thought of clutching our baby, naked in front of our families, their echos cracking through the church with murmurs of what they did or didn’t find.
Corey Miller was a finalist for the F(r)iction Flash Fiction Contest (Spring ’20) and shortlisted for The Forge Flash Competition (’20). His writing has appeared in MoonPark Review, Pithead Chapel, Lost Balloon, Hobart, and elsewhere. When not working or writing, Corey likes to take the dogs for adventures. Follow him on Twitter @IronBrewer or at www.coreymillerwrites.com.
Art by Michelle Johnsen, art editor
Michelle Johnsen is a nature and portrait photographer in Lancaster, PA, as well as an amateur herbalist and naturalist. Her work has been featured by It’s Modern Art, Susquehanna Style magazine, Permaculture Activist magazine, EcoWatch.com, EarthFirst! Journal, Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative, and used as album art for Grandma Shake!, Anna & Elizabeth, and Liz Fulmer Music. Michelle’s photos have also been stolen by AP, weather.com, The Daily Mail, and Lancaster Newspapers. You can contact her at mjphoto717 [at] gmail.com.