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    The Shift

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    Illustration by Kendall Regan

    They see the dog from maybe half a mile away. Lee Crenshaw pulls the big white truck over to the side of the Greenbelt Highway in southwestern Jefferson County, a hotspot for the dead, and glances down at the list he got this morning. A little after 7 a.m., five days a week, he gets a spreadsheet like this, a mass obituary for the non-human dead of Louisville, compiled from reports called in to Louisville Public Works or submitted online.

    Kenny Hammon pulls on a pair of work gloves and hops down from the passenger side. “Skinny,” he says, looking down at the pit bull, once white. A dull rain bloats brown puddles around the dog, occasional drops pricking one frozen open eye. Its fur has matted into dirty needles, pale pink skin visible between them. Hammon’s 40, built like a football coach, with a jovial, squarish face. He’s been doing this four years, and he doesn’t hesitate. He grabs the dog by a front and back leg, the other two sticking straight up, rigid. The side the dog had been lying on has been flattened by its weight, caked with mud. A dirty stream pours from the limp tail. Hammon doesn’t need to open the back of the truck for an animal this small; he pulls back the little side door and flings the dog in. It does a little somersault before it joins the putrid cargo with a sick smack, adding to the mound of rotting flesh propped up with exposed bones, the bulk of it deer in various states of decay. Crenshaw has the temperature in the back set to 46 degrees, not so cold the carcasses will freeze together. The smell oozes out like a mortal curse.

    Back in the truck, Hammon cleans his hands with one of the little bottles of hand sanitizer in the console. He and Crenshaw go through one every day or two. They’ve also got sanitizer spray for their boots and some paper face masks, but beyond their fluorescent yellow hoodies and a flat-mouthed shovel, there’s no special equipment for picking up dead animals. “We have those, what do you call them?” Hammon asks. “Like hazmat. But we didn’t bring any with us today.”

    If it weren’t for Crenshaw and Hammon, Louisville would be littered with death. From Jan. 1 to Dec. 15 last year, public works got 2,508 reports of dead animals, many of which had perished along Hurstbourne Parkway or River Road. About a hundred of those reports were duplicates, and the guys found nothing at some 500 sites, but that’s still an awful lot of dead weight for two people. Crenshaw and Hammon work county line to county line, covering everything but the interstates. Dogs? Yep. Cats? Sure. Deer? You better believe it. But also skunks, opossums, raccoons. They’ve even had to call in backup for some cows and horses. Their first job today was a regular: lab animals at the VA. The same woman as always wheeled out a cart heaped with trash bags. “How you doing today?” she asked Hammon, like she was talking to her mailman. “Got some more micicles and ratcicles for ya.”

    Bouncing over the road from the middle seat, I ask Crenshaw and Hammon if they’ve learned anything about animals since taking this job. “I’ve learned they need to watch where they’re going,” Hammon says.

    Both of them have become pretty desensitized to this line of work. “When something’s pregnant, or you get a opossum and there’s dead babies next to it, that kind of gets to me,” Hammon says. Crenshaw just shakes his head. He is 49 and has been doing this since 2001. One time, before Hammon worked with him, Crenshaw went out to pick up a deer, and his partner tried to lift it with a shovel. Before Crenshaw could do anything, the shovel jerked free of the flesh and slung maggots all over him. He stripped to his underwear right there. They were near a home, and a man let Crenshaw hose off before driving the truck back in his skivvies. He keeps a change of clothes in his car.

    After shoveling a dead cat into the back, Crenshaw and Hammon head to the landfill on the Outer Loop, part of a 600-acre property where towers spew flames into the sky and a great mountain of garbage gluts itself bigger and bigger. At the entrance, a woman in a booth greets Crenshaw by name and hands him a receipt detailing the truck’s weight. There’s about 2,580 pounds on board, which will cost the city $152.26 to dump. “Do they give you guys special gloves or something?” she asks him. He laughs. They don’t.

    The truck grunts up the winding gravel road, passing dump trucks and backhoes. Lee says it’s a light day, that trucks sometimes line up, spinning out in the mud. At the top, we drive out over the trash, the truck just one of many scurrying over the garbage like beetles. “If you get out, you should leave your keys in the truck,” Crenshaw says. When I ask why, Hammon replies, “You ever heard the expression about a needle in a haystack?”

    Ankle-deep in plastic and dirt, McDonald’s bags and spent Capris Suns, I watch Crenshaw and Hammon haul up the back door of the truck on what, to them, is a perfectly normal sight. Blood smears the walls. Hooves spike up between dogs. The guys drag the deer by their legs, moving the pile outside body by body. The corpses are so rigid that they slide off the back of the truck and balance against it, their hooves stuck in the ground. They stand like taxidermy projects gone terribly wrong, their jawbones left exposed, their haunches bloodied, their skin hanging in loose shreds. Crenshaw and Hammon have to kick a few over. The last buck, crushed by the weight of his brethren, is all flat but for his antlers. Bags of rats fly out over the refuse. A trashcan offers a number of cold cats.

    Then there’s the pit bull. In the air, its ears flutter like wings, its legs outstretched, its mouth agape. It could be leaping at a Frisbee. Until it crumples into the pile, rolls down the backs of deer and splays belly up against a doe, blood painting the inside of its legs crimson, one eye, like a spoiled marble, staring.

    This originally appeared in the February 2018 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Dylon Jones's picture

    About Dylon Jones

    Dylon Jones is a senior editor at Louisville Magazine.

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