The Investigators by Deb Olin Unferth

Think high-rises, gated communities, all the places that give you a twitch of existential dread. The Amazon shipping facilities, the dying superstores, the prisons and detention centers, the pig farms, all the boxes that hold products and people and animals, the LeCorbusian landscape one skirts over or through, avoids.

An excerpt from Unferths’s novel Barn 8 (Graywolf).

BOMB 150 Winter 2020
150 Cover No Barcode Small

Think high-rises, gated communities, all the places that give you a twitch of existential dread. The Amazon shipping facilities, the dying superstores, the prisons and detention centers, the pig farms, all the boxes that hold products and people and animals, the LeCorbusian landscape one skirts over or through, avoids. Think of the smaller boxes that we press our faces to, think of all the tiny digital boxes we touch with our fingers to signal alliance, passion, smarts, nostalgia, enmity, the whole of our minds.

Think of a guy, a lone man, sitting far below in a box of tin and wheels, a stretch of plain earth around him. Deep dawn, barren concrete, bluing sky (though the footage was black and white so the sky would look gray). The guy, Matt (but some of them don’t use their real names), grabbed his plastic lunch bag and got out of the car. He walked toward the steel barn (the mic recording his breath and the sound of his steps). Inside, he pulled his time card out of the slot. His phone buzzed.

Another one, Chris, two states away, was already walking through the barn, saying hello to everyone he passed (his “character” was “friendly, helpful”) over the hens’ tremendous coo. (His camera was off. He flipped it on only when necessary. Early in his “career” he’d felt like he was making a zombie movie: horror with four million hens, and he’d let the camera run on and on. But these days he thought of his films—well, footage—as mumblecore: too boring for anyone to bother watching.) In his pocket his phone rang. He pulled off a glove and silenced it, didn’t look to see who it was. He was supposed to leave his phone in his locker. The first rule of being an investigator: follow farm rules.

The investigators. She was summoning them.

There was Joey, an ultraprofessional—calculating, quiet, efficient, earnest, not a drop of the smartass in him—but so short that the camera, disguised as his top button, hit the farm managers at their bellies so that it was nearly impossible to catch their faces. He wore heels for professional purposes, cowboy boots (not leather, of course, but some quasi-recycled substance). The boots helped maybe a little but made his feet hot. His call came while he was still sipping coffee at the motel. It was an hour earlier there. He saw the number. What, was she back?

The investigators. Their squeaky shoes in the not-quite dawn. Their humble lunches of fake meat in a grocery sack. The time zones turning up and down across the country like a dial. Their video flickering on at 6:45 AM, the first shot of the day the local paper (proof of place and date). They’d trained in covert operations, physical and psychological warfare. There were only a couple dozen active in the country at any time, spread out among the various organizations. A few dozen more who’d quit after a few years’ run. She knew every one of them and had all their numbers.

There was Penelope. Max. Shawn. Frank.

There was the Canadian investigator, a woman with a voice like Mary Poppins. No one could remember her name. She was just “that Canadian,” as in, “That Canadian can flirt the farmers into anything.”

Jim, the philosopher-investigator, who, when the call came, was walking the long rows of hens. Hens and hens and hens. It was an exercise in repetition, a mathematical situation, Zenoean, Steinian, Sisyphean. The cages, the eggs, the beaks, the long journeys down the aisles. The hours of depop, vac, debeaking, the sound of the birds, the amazing amount of excrement, the same jokes over and over, the dead birds he ripped from the floor of the cages (“mummies,” they called them), an infinite series of infinite series. His phone was in his locker. She left a message.

There was Uriel. He could tell stories of shit, all right. The shit pit, walking around in it, shoveling paths through it, shit mounds eight feet high, a forest of them, stray hens running around and living in it (which would be better, he pondered, to live in a cage or in shit?), the shit being dumped in the fields and wafting into the air, turning everything white—the trees, the grass, himself, white with shit.

Ben’s charisma, Mariam’s charm, Tame’s sense of humor, but also their deep sorrows, their solitary natures, their disturbances. They were all covering disappointments in one way or another, throwing another blanket on top.

There was JT, six foot four, former quarterback. First glance at his footage and you’d think he did nothing but bitch, a running monologue of complaints through his workday. The hours, the filth, the heat, the cold. What an asshole. But in this way he was able to talk to the farmhands all day, get verbal confirmations from managers, and be above suspicion (all farmers know an investigator never complains—it’s the hardest workers you have to look out for). You’d have to admit JT was a damn professional and on top of that a great comedian.

JT got the call on his boat because he’d quit (the bitching wasn’t only a technique), had taken his cash, bought this little used skipper, was sailing away to Gilligan’s Island, never coming back. Fuck them all.

When she called, he was starboard, coiling ropes. He saw it was her and (he couldn’t help it) answered—his first (or next) mistake.

Simon, who never went anywhere without a weapon.

Tinker, who recorded every phone conversation he had and listened to them later when he was alone. He recorded his conversations with his mother.

Pooky, who’d had it with investigating. They’d risked his safety over and over. He’d tell anyone who asked. He had proof of it all.

Mostly men, mostly white, the investigators, though a handful were women, and some were Latino. A few more than you’d think from across oceans.

They walked, the investigators, each day from their cars to the barns. Today it was Ian, Guillermo, James, Pat. Midwest flatness in the distance. Desolate earth that they saw at its most desolate hour—in the ice-dark. Or at the loveliest hour: in California, the soft dawn, leafy light, the lucky bastard investigators who got assigned there. Jonny, AJ, Joel the Jew.

Dylan, who’d captured some classic footage before he quit. A details man, skilled at showing abundance. He’d filmed whole Dumpsters of dead hens dropping through the air into trucks. He filmed flies that were like walking on popcorn, flies that looked like piles of dirt. Dead flies all over the counters, the plywood, the eggs. And live flies in the air, swirling in front of the camera.

He was sound asleep when she called, though it was nearly eleven.

They grew lonely, the investigators, once the initial thrill wore off. They were prone to dread. Laney had nightmares. Alphabet felt sorry for himself. Terrance joined pickup games in parks in every town to stave off the sadness. They were like overseas terrorists moving from town to town. They stayed in motel rooms, had with them only enough belongings that could be packed into a duffel in fifty-nine minutes and driven away.

There was Mike, whose footage was always awful. No narrative energy. He never talked to the camera and what he did say was boring. Mike didn’t seem like he even thought being a farmhand was such a bad job. Then, of course, there was the beautiful moment when he accidentally left the camera on and filmed himself leaving the facility, driving to Subway, and ordering a meatball sandwich with cheese and a cookie. That footage got around somehow and the other investigators hated him for it.

Still, he was a professional. He got his call around one, while he was tugging his fortieth dead hen of the day, tearing the skin off the bottom of the cage (carpet-pulling, they called it).

Their shoes, their forearms (or their sleeves if they had tattoos: Cean, Robert, Katie, Calvin). Their moonwalks over the tops of the cages. Their echoing calls to the farmhands, the swoop of the camera when it scanned the higher cages and then swept down. The investigator’s breathing, the sniffles caught on the audio. (The dander gathered in the chest: Snake had endless colds, flus, bugs; and Rabbit, with his allergy—bad luck—to feathers.) Whatever got caught on the footage, that’s all you’d ever see or hear of them.

Only a handful of directors and former directors she’d trust—Nancy, Cricket, Steve, Smoke. Then there were the investigators who didn’t specialize in on-site employment but in one-off encounter work—posing as a truck driver, food service, a customer. Not really investigators, but tough enough and trustworthy. Twenty-three of them.

When a case went down PR would take over: a tele-press conference, a webpage, a video on YouTube, a demand for resignations, a call to the DA, an online petition, a request for donations. The investigator would disappear. Tom would take a break to go hiking. Ula hid out in a motel room and watched TV. Jackson went to see his mother. They’d wait for the next assignment, new location.

They called PR the smile team. The web guy was the spider.

Carol. She’d grown a little weird—weirder (she was plenty weird to start). Her girlfriend had drifted away. She’d gotten a DUI and lost her license. When she saw who it was, she thought, Now what?

Donnie. He was the one who started all that vasectomy business, and it spread through the investigators like a disease. Heather even had her tubes tied, a much more invasive procedure.

Ray. He got his call at the end of the day, as he exited the barn and walked toward his car, muttering. Beyond the Dumpsters, the razed fields, the sun dropping into them, the barns across the road burning red. The last time he’d seen Annabelle he’d thrown a chair at the wall and walked out. But he answered.

Ron. He was old guard, X. These youngsters pissed him off. The millennials were crybabies, Gen Z cut corners.

The investigators, their crack-ups and breakdowns containable, turning on a predictable cycle. Arnoldo, Sahara, Sam, Vince, Rocket, Fred.

The long stories of their demise.

When they finally quit and cut out, as almost all did (or, like Dill, were spit out), they had nothing: blank years on their résumés since what they did was strictly secret, no skills other than to perform jobs they’d spent their lives trying to abolish, alienated family, permanent back trouble. Zac had tremors, Mark PTSD,

Liz lingering fears of being caught. When

Sinan closed his eyes to sleep he saw behind his eyelids the barns, thousands and thousands of them, a grid stretching around the earth.

Rainey. She was sitting in the bathtub crying when the call came.

Bobby. Crouched on the roof smoking a
joint. His phone sounded like a rooster’s morning crow.

She called them all. Hank, Pal, Byrd, Mike. Ham, Hal, Cat, Frond. All the ones who’d quit, all the ones she’d fired, all the ones who’d stayed. Mel, Annie, Rake, Sol. Storm, Paz, Hop, Mic. All the ones who’d drifted away, said they’d come back but hadn’t.

And Zee. He’d done thirty-one investigations in twelve states in six years. He’d changed cars five times, changed his facial hair over and over, changed his accent, legally changed his name twice and changed what he went by so many times he couldn’t count.

One day he would marry Janey Flores, though on the day he got the call he did not know of her existence. His childhood name had been Carl, long left behind. He now went by Zee (for Zoro). And while he was still listening to Annabelle’s message, his phone beeped again. It was a text from Trish (née Francine) saying, Guess who just called, and soon other texts were coming in because Zee knew a lot of the investigators, though he’d never felt entirely comfortable with them. Last year he’d resigned and vowed never to return. He hadn’t worked an investigation in over a year.

We’re planning an action. We need your help.

The world is failing but we can fight back.

Wear a ski mask when you get here. Can’t be too careful, even with each other.

They didn’t know what she wanted but a few days later they went. They dropped their tools, wrapped up their investigations, or got sober. They filled their tanks, filed onto flights, boarded buses. They were on the move. It was biblical, mythological, fabled. They disappeared out of their spots like the rapture but there were so few of them and they were such loners, their absence was barely noticed. An assembling army called out of reserve. For what, they didn’t know, but they believed in their cause and, despite everything, they’d been waiting for the summons.

Deb Olin Unferth is the author of six books. Her work has appeared in Granta, Harper’s, McSweeney’s, and the Paris Review. “The Investigators” is an excerpt from her new novel, Barn 8, forthcoming in March from Graywolf Press.

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Originally published in

BOMB 150, Winter 2020

For our 150th issue, we have redesigned our flagship print magazine. This design reaffirms our mandate to deliver the artist’s voice, supporting the vital discourse that appears in BOMB with vivid imagery and innovative juxtapositions that encourage dialogue across the arts—from conversations between artists, writers, and performers to exciting literature. We present exchanges in their formative state: revelatory, fluid, and iconoclastic.

This issue features interviews with Bruce Pearson, Anthony Roth Costanzo, Jacolby Satterwhite, Cathy Park Hong, Christiane Jatahy, and Seth Price, as well as fiction from Amelia Gray, Deb Olin Unferth, and Jenny Wu, and poetry from Sawako Nakayasu, Andrei Monastyrski, and Bob Holman.

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