The Meat Grinder

[This is a satirical short story criticizing American education. If you teach or have a child at a “competitive” prep school or college, you’ll get it. From Loss of Consciousness.]

The walls of Hensington Elmworth Learning Labs were lined with framed photographs of ground meat. Jana chose one at random and leaned in to read the caption underneath it:

Caroline Fuller
Class of 2003
Net Worth after Ten Years: $150 Million

“You have a keen eye,” Mr. Ashfield said.

“I do?”

The director of admissions shuffled to Jana’s side, reached out with his right hand, and brushed the edge of the photograph’s frame with one finger.

“Absolutely,” he said. “Miss Fuller was one of our best.” His finger moved from the frame toward the center of the photograph, where he lightly traced one of the curling, yarn-like strands of reddish-pink meat.

“She was one of the most finely ground specimens we ever produced. Most people’s muscle fibers disintegrate when ground this finely. They become worthless. But hers retained the perfect texture. Look.”

Jana leaned even closer, grimacing slightly at the pain in her back, and squinted to look at the muscle fibers. She couldn’t see what he was talking about, but she nodded anyway, and Ashfield continued.

“Talk about return on investment! Only half a million dollars in tuition spread over thirteen years, and just a decade after graduation, she was worth a hundred and fifty million! If I remember correctly, she’s up to four hundred now.”

Jana couldn’t stop her eyes from widening, and Ashfield noticed. “I told you,” he said. “We create value here. And that’s what we’ll do for little Shareen.” He pointed toward Jana’s swollen belly. “You’d be hard-pressed to think of a good reason not to send your child to Hensington Elmworth Learning Labs. What we do here goes far beyond college. But you already know that, don’t you? That’s why you’re here.”

“Yes.” Unconsciously, Jana lifted a hand to her abdomen, which felt tighter than ever, and the baby chose that moment to shift its position. It was hard to imagine that the tiny child squirming inside her would one day be a grown woman whose photograph might be featured on this very wall.

“If you’re ready, I have a contract for you in my office,” Ashfield said. “This way.”

Jana followed, and a minute later she was sitting across from Ashfield at a small table, staring at a stack of papers he had given her to sign. Her fingers flexed and unflexed around the pen. She felt uneasy about it—physically sick, even—but this was what you had to do to secure a future for your child. This was the world into which Shareen would be born.

Hesitantly, Jana placed the tip of her pen above the signature line, and just as she was about to write her name, a crimson spot blossomed in the middle of the paper. Tiny flecks of red liquid landed on her hand. Another large drop splattered on the contract, and then another. Both Jana and Mr. Ashfield looked up. A dark red, glistening patch was slowly spreading from the center of the ceiling. More drops fell.

Mr. Ashfield cursed, pushed his chair back, and stood. Even as he did so, the series of discrete drops became a continuous stream, and Jana could smell it. If there had been any doubt to begin with, there was none now: It was blood.

“I’m terribly sorry,” Mr. Ashfield said. “There’s a class taking a test in the room upstairs. I thought we had fixed the leak. Please give me just a minute.”

He rushed toward the door, where, for the briefest sliver of a second, he hesitated. Jana was sure that his eyes flicked back toward something behind his desk—something he was worried she might discover in his absence. And then he disappeared, the sound of his footsteps growing fainter as he ran.

Jana followed the direction of Ashfield’s glance. There, sitting on the floor beside a paper shredder, was a box labeled “erasures.” She lifted one of the cardboard flaps and looked inside. There were three neat stacks of what must have amounted to thousands of photographs of ground meat, just like the ones in the hallway where Caroline Fuller’s picture was hanging. And there was space where a fourth stack had apparently been.

She looked at the paper shredder, then at the trash can beside it. It contained thin strips of photographic paper, most of it covered with what was now, to Jana, an unmistakable shade of pink—the pink of fresh ground meat. She went back to the box, looked inside once more, and removed one of the photos. Stapled behind it was a piece of paper, identifying the subject in the picture as Dennis Schwent, Class of 2009, now occupied as a teacher, with a net worth of $37,000.

Jana dropped the photo of Dennis and picked up the next one in the stack. The meat pictured in it was a less pleasant shade of pink, and it wasn’t very finely ground. It belonged to Allison Gockley, Class of 2010, now occupied as an artist. In the space for net worth, instead of a dollar amount, were written the words “In Debt.”

The next dozen or so photos were similar: graduates from 2009 or 2010, working low-wage jobs, with very little accumulated wealth. Not something Hensington Elmworth could display with pride. Jana was just wondering how many such photos Mr. Ashfield shredded each year, when her thoughts were interrupted by his voice.

“What are you doing?”

Her heart skipped a beat, and the photograph she was holding slipped from her hand onto the floor beside the shredder. She rose to her feet quickly and turned to see Mr. Ashfield’s figure filling the doorway. He did not look pleased.

“I saw the photos,” Jana stammered. “And I thought—” Her lie died on her lips. What would he be willing to believe she had been thinking? That she’d been expecting to see more cases of stunning success?

“Those are confidential records,” Mr. Ashfield said.

“I’m sorry. After all those pictures in the hallway, I . . . just wanted to see more.”

Ashfield’s eyes narrowed, but he said nothing.

“Is the leak fixed?” Jana asked.

“We moved the exam to a different room,” Ashfield replied. “The leak will be taken care of tomorrow.”

Absorbed in the photographs, Jana had hardly noticed that the rain of blood had largely abated. Only a few scattered drops fell from the ceiling now. She stepped back over to the table where her contract lay, still unsigned. Ashfield’s eyes followed her until she was seated, then darted to the papers in front of her.

“I apologize for the mess,” he said. “I . . . do hope this hasn’t changed your mind. Shall I get you a clean contract?”

“There’s no need,” Jana said.

“I see. I’ll walk you out then.”

“No,” Jana said, picking up the pen. “I’ll just sign this one.” And before Mr. Ashfield could say anything else, she signed her name, running the tip of the pen through three large drops of blood, nearly tearing the wet paper with the last stroke. She dropped the pen when she was finished.

“You’ve made the right decision,” Mr. Ashfield said.

“No doubt you said the same to the parents of the children whose photos you’ve been shredding,” Jana said.

Mr. Ashfield grimaced. “Yes, well . . . In every case, it’s a gamble for everyone involved. The parents, the child, the school—we all do as much as we can and hope for the best. Hensington Elmworth is still the surest bet. That much remains true.”

“I know. That’s why I signed.”

Minutes later, Jana emerged from the front entrance and began walking toward the subway station. The school building was on her right. The dark brown bricks were stained by a century of exposure to the elements. Something jutting out of the wall a foot above the ground caught her eye: the end of an old rusty pipe, three inches in diameter. A steady stream of crimson liquid trickled out of it onto the sidewalk, down over the curb, and into a storm drain.

Jana looked up at the second-floor windows directly above the pipe, above Mr. Ashfield’s office. Somewhere up there, the students were still taking their test.

She rubbed a fist against her back, trying to ease the pain, and something shifted inside her abdomen. She felt a dull internal snap, a slight release of tension, and then a stream of liquid running down her leg. She looked at her foot. A clear fluid trickled down the side of her shoe and joined with the stream of red liquid coming from the pipe. She realized the pain had moved from her back to her belly, which now felt even tighter than before. And she knew what was happening.

Shareen was coming.

[For more satirical stories with philosophical and political themes, please check out my new book, Loss of Consciousness.]

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