Vancouver, British Columbia, internationally renowned for its scenic setting, attracts thousands of tourists every year. In worldwide quality-of-life rankings, I read the other day, it consistently appears in the top five. Its namesake, on the other hand—where I sat reading this article—lies 300 miles south on the Columbia River, just across the bridge from Portland, Oregon, and is rough and corrupt and ugly, and if tourists end up here, they’re lost.
I was no tourist, but it could be said my sense of direction in life at this time was something less than centered. How else could I have ended up working the swing shift at NorthStar Packing, sorting pears on the line for eight hours a day, six days a week? I just fell into the job after trying to get on as a blackjack dealer at Wheeler’s. That’s what took me across the bridge from Portland in the first place—Wheeler’s. I’d run a table down in Newport not long before I moved to Portland, where, outside the casinos, game-table gambling is illegal, so I thought I’d try Vancouver, where it’s rife. Not that I didn’t have other plans for myself—sometime, somewhere—but there was rent to be paid in the meantime. Wheeler’s wasn’t hiring. NorthStar Packing down the road was. And I couldn’t be bothered to look anywhere else.
Every day at two, I was there on the line in a white plastic apron and hard hat. Pears came swiftly down the belt and those of us on the line had to toss the bruised ones in the bin, and sort out the rest by size. There were twelve long rumbling lines and dozens of workers, with a catwalk overhead where a floor supervisor languidly prowled making sure we were all hustling and hurling. At the top of the hour the whistle blew and we had five minutes to use the toilet or sit down and rest. Lunch was thirty minutes from six to six-thirty in a large windowless canteen with vending machines and microwaves, rather like a prison hall. I didn’t talk to anyone for the first week, out of sheer exhaustion as much as anything, but as I popped a couple bennies—discreetly I’d thought—coming out of the Ladies, a little woman cornered me on the spot.
“Are those cross-tops you just took?”
“Excuse me?” I answered.
“What were those pills? Looked like cross-tops.”
“That was bladder medication,” I said flatly.
“It looked like cross-tops to me and I could really use a couple,” she said. She hung on me on the line then and I had to be careful not to whiz and sling pears double-time and give myself away.
“My name’s Sharon,” she said, shuffling the pears like a professional card dealer.
“Abbie,” I said.
Sharon was under five-foot tall, had big blond hair and a pug nose. By the end of the next week, I’d learned all about her—one-handed, indifferent husband on disability, mouthy teen daughter, and a severely mentally disabled seventeen-year-old boy at home. My life looked pretty good next to hers, but Sharon wasn’t a complainer, just stated the facts, and, though I remained guarded, she was a listener, too. Before long I was sharing my bladder medication.
“I’m applying for forklift,” she’d announced the next day. “They just posted an opening. You going for it?”
“Might,” I said. “Do they train?”
“Only if there aren’t any experienced applicants,” she said, “which is likely at this dump. Plus it’s swing, not day, which is more popular.”
You could talk on the line, but not take your eyes off the belt.
“You like swing?”
“Limbo shift? I like the extra money’s all, sucks up your night and day. My daughter loves it cause she never sees me.”
“What’s the pay anyway?”
“Swing, twelve fifty an hour.”
“Beats this wage,” I said.
“Easier on the back, too. You ever worked the line before?” she asked.
“No,” I said.
“Everyone’s got back problems by the end of season,” she said. “Or neck. Which is why the union reps will corner you in the canteen; they try to get compensation for WMSDs.”
“Work-related musculoskeletal disorders.”
“Well, I’ve already been cornered,” I said, “but it’s hefty dues for three months seasonal, don’t you think?”
“Yep, I do. That’s why I want forklift. I’ve worked the line ten years straight and I have a slipped C-disk in my neck.” The whistle blew then and we collapsed on the wood bench that lined the wall. I removed my hard hat and gave my head a good rub, but Sharon left hers on because she didn’t like the look of her mashed-down hair which took some work to fluff back up.
“You wanna hit Hinkers when we get off?” she asked.
Hinkers was a concrete-block bar sitting in a wheat field across from the plant. It existed mainly for the packing company as the road, in a steep, quarter-mile descent, dead-ended at its entrance. Being seasonal employees, we didn’t have lockers, so we all carried our hard hats to the bar. Tap beer and bourbon straight up were the drinks of choice, while Hank Williams Jr., Bob Seger and Willie Nelson topped the music along with some classic oldies. No game tables in the place—that action was down the road at Wheeler’s where drinks cost three times the price—but it was a lively place when swing shift got off. For two weeks I’d been eyeing the delectable buttocks on the catwalker, who had a sexy retro look not unlike Neal Cassady, so I was happy to see him amongst the crowd. Sharon, who never missed a beat, caught me looking. “You like Brock?”
“So that’s his name,” I said. “Not bad, huh?”
“Supervisors won’t mix with the sorters,” she said.
“Supervisors won’t mix with the sorters?”
“That’s rich,” I said. “Like it’s some kind of deal to make supervisor. Talk about hitting a ceiling.”
“What I mean is,” I cut in awkwardly, remembering the plant was a large part of her world, “we’re all working on the factory floor, and sitting here together, knocking ’em back. Hard to think in terms of a friggin’ hierarchy, don’t you figure?”
“I like the way you think,” she said.
We sat there sipping our bourbon, listening to “Help Me Make it Through the Night.” A sappy oldie, but effective, especially when you’re half tanked. There was a small dance floor and on a whim I jumped up and asked Sharon to watch my bag, then walked over to Brock at the bar, introduced myself and invited him to dance. He gave me a flat no after hesitating a second, like he had to mentally review plant protocol.
“Had to try,” I told Sharon when I got back.
“Thought I’d have a cow,” she gasped. “Thought he might go for it, too, you’re so pretty. How old are you anyway? you don’t mind me asking.”
“Thirty-two,” I said.
“I put you in your twenties,” she said. “You ought to keep trying down at Wheeler’s, the owner likes good-looking, long-haired brunettes. Top pay, too.”
“Wouldn’t go for a short, stacked blonde?” I asked. “Get you off the line.”
“Can you see me dealing? My boobs would barely clear the table. I’d be all head and hair floatin’ over the felt.”
“You could stand on a box,” I said. “You’re good with your hands. And with people.”
“Well, that’d be a first.”
“RSI is the danger dealing,” I said. “But it’s an hour on, fifteen off—better than the plant—and the tokes are high, you meet people.”
“RSI is a line problem, too,” Sharon said. “And then there’s what I call RSS, which is my marriage.”
“Let me guess, Repetitive Stress Sex or Syndrome?”
“The latter,” she said, “Takes in everything. You’re lucky you’re not stuck with that one.”
Sharon went to the Ladies and I sat thinking about how I was lucky I wasn’t stuck with that one.
“You ever, you know, take a break?” I said when she sat back down. “Fool around a little? Looks like a lot of in-house action around here.”
“There’ve been some guys in the past,” she said, “ but it’s so damn hard to find the time. Sorry bunch of sorters last year, I can tell ya. Are my eyebrows on straight?”
I peered with a squint at her brown, penciled-in brows. “They’re fine,” I said. We ordered another round and continued to shoot the breeze. The more I got to know Sharon, the more I liked her. She was the real deal. She could hold her drink, too, and I liked that.
“What do you want to be doing, Sharon, what are your dreams?” I asked, a couple more shots down the line.
“Well, don’t laugh, but I’ve been saving to go to college. I want to teach little kids. I love little kids and I’m taller than them, too.” She threw her head back and gave a hearty laugh. “And I want a good man, a real good lover. The closer I get to forty, the hornier I get. I could go for ’bout anyone in this joint who’d give me a good roll. I particularly fancy that Peruvian we were talking to in the canteen, that tray packer. He was from Peru, wasn’t he?”
“I think that’s what he said. He’s hard to understand.”
“I thought he said Purdue at first, but that can’t be right.”
“No, that can’t be right.”
We sat there soaking up the music for a while. It was a good sound system. I was thinking about Sharon’s life at home and had to ask: “How’d your husband lose his hand anyway?”
“Stars and Stripes,” she said.
“You mean, in the military?”
“Nope,” she said. “Fireworks show, down at the river. It’s a big deal here, the fireworks show on the fourth, and well, he’d been a volunteer with the city for eight years, so he knew what he was doing, but there’d been an incorrect mount with the Stars and Stripes mortar launch and he didn’t catch it.”
“If you ever meet him, don’t mention the Stars and Stripes,” she said.
“I rather doubt I would.”
“You’d be surprised how often it comes up,” she said.
I tried to think how it could possibly come up and I wasn’t getting anywhere. “And it was after that he became distant?” I asked.
“Hell no, he was born distant. Distant and lazy. After the accident, he was a lazy ass with one less hand is all.”
She didn’t elaborate so I didn’t ask why they hooked up in the first place. We were in a pretty good mood and I didn’t want to bring it down.
“What about you, honey, what are your dreams?” she asked. But before I could answer, the music cranked up and it was impossible to talk, which was just as well because unlike Sharon, I was rather unfocused on that score. We both hit the floor and I saw that Sharon, although short, had a natural grace and rhythm. I didn’t want to think it, but she reminded me of a nimble-footed Miss Piggy. Which can be kind of cute in its way though hardly made her a babe magnet. We hung in there for a good ten minutes or more and worked up a good sweat.
Back at the table, we ordered another round and she was immediately off on sex again: “You ever get lockjaw from a blow job?”
“My jaw aches sometimes, if that’s what you mean.”
“No,” she said, “I mean your jaw locks.” She curled her fingers and made a twisting motion around her jaw, dropping her mouth. “Happened to me with the last guy I was with, right here in Hinker’s Ladies’. Took a good five minutes to pop back.”
“Christ,” I said. “What’d the guy do?”
“Well, he helped out, helped massage it.” We both sipped our bourbon and sat there staring at the crowd. I liked it that Sharon and I were equally comfortable in our silences.
“Wonder what aches when guys do us?” I said.
“Their dicks,” she said. “Waiting to get it over with and get on with the show.”
“I suppose you’re right there,” I said. Then I thought of a game I’d played and started with Sharon: “OK, here’s a question for you: where’s the furthest north you’ve ever had sex?” You know how it goes, north, south, east, west, highest altitude, etc. I was all over the map, but Sharon never got out of the county. The thing I noticed though, she sure as hell had covered the county.
The following week it was posted that one Robbie Southwall had gotten the forklift position. I hadn’t applied because it was my first year there and, of course, I was pulling for Sharon. I knew Southwall had applied because he worked the line to the right of me and had mentioned it. I also knew from chatting briefly with Southwall that it was his first year at the plant, which was obvious because he tossed pears like he had hooves for hands.
“So I guess Southwall had some experience,” I said to Sharon.
“No, Southwall is being trained as we speak,” she said.
“Well, that’s not right,” I said. “You’ve worked here donkey’s years.”
“Now there’s an expression, donkey’s years. You’re damn fucking right, donkey’s years.”
“Did you talk to the plant supervisor?”
“I talked to the supervisor,” she said. “He said I was needed on the line because I was real good with my hands and Southwall was slow to pull.”
“But that’s a crock. You’re being denied the job because Southwall’s incompetent on the line?”
“Nothing new around here, honey,” she said.
“But can’t you take them to court over that? Something? I mean that is so purely sexist.”
“I could, but I’d never get hired here again. It’s not like we have contracts, being seasonal. Who has the time and money anyway?”
The belt stopped then and we stood there waiting for it to resume. Without the hum and clank of the machinery, I dropped my voice to a near whisper. “Can’t you at least talk to the union reps?”
“I have,” she said under her breath. “They say they can’t do anything when it comes to hiring, being seasonal; they’re in bed with management anyway, everyone knows.”
“So what’s the effing point of the union?” I rasped. Through the sheer force and momentum of line work we stupidly continued looking straight down at the belt and bins as we spoke.
“Fuck WMSDs. I can’t believe what I’m hearing, Sharon.”
“Well, I am good with my hands.”
“That’s beside the effing point; you’d be a good forklift driver, too.”
“I know, I know,” she said, hushing me with her tone, “but enough with the effing points. Here, I’m closer to that Peruvian, that’s the upside. I just wish I could pronounce his name. Can you say it one more time?”
“Jeez, Sharon, jeez,” I said, shaking my head. An overload of pears came at us then as the conveyor kicked in and we had to scramble. “A-oo-SAY-bee-o,” I said when it settled down.
And that was a lie, what she’d said—one: because I knew how bad she wanted that job; and two: because Eusebio was a tray packer and she’d at least get a little personal contact on forklift, which she well knew. All she could do on the line was look at the guy. Just her way though, to make light of a situation, no matter how grossly unfair, beyond her control. I wish I could say the same for me, but I could fall into a funk easily enough. And under no circumstances would I ever consider it an upside to catch occasional glimpses of a skinny-assed middle-aged Peruvian with bad skin.
I’m not from the Northwest. I’m not even West Coast. I grew up in Minnesota, prep school in Michigan, then two years at Northwestern. That part of my life was fairly well mapped out and I floated along with the agenda, outwardly excelling while harboring a growing hollowness I couldn’t name. Then I met Conde, on the streets of Chicago on a cool Sunday afternoon, selling his art at the Maxwell Street Market on Canal and Roosevelt. I never knew his real first name; he was Romanian, had long black curly hair, wore layered, tatty black clothes, and therefore got tagged Conde at a young age by the boys of El Barrio. It may sound pretentious, the look, the name, but it was genuine. Along with the line of tiny gold rings that laddered his left ear, and the patrician nose. One could believe he came out of the womb that way, a little black-clad conde with paintbrush in hand. At age ten he’d been taken in by an immigrant uncle in New York, his only American relation. His family had suffered under the Securitate, but stubbornly, grimly, stayed on. Not much was ever said about them though I sensed a darkness there, a space I couldn’t touch.
Conde was an oil painter, a good one. And a bit of a clown, always smiling, not unlikely to give a long, slow bow to passers-by. I was admiring an abstract piece with splashes of my favorite colors and we fell into conversation. The market was folding up for the day, so we drifted to a small cafe, and later on back to his van. That’s where he lived, his van, which was filled with unstretched rolls of canvas and smelled of paint. Conde and I seemed to meet in mid-conversation. There was no chat up, no “what’s your name,” no ritual babble; we just started talking. And we didn’t stop for six years. The force that was Conde Dodrescu didn’t so much fly into my heart as into every niche of my being.
We traveled everywhere in the van, from one coast to the other, north to Canada, south to Mexico. I encouraged a stopover in St. Paul, but that had not been wise—especially as it was the year of a presidential election and my parents were both wearing Vote Reagan pins, having just donated a huge sum to his campaign. Relations with them had always been strained and became worse after that, breaking off altogether eventually. Conde’d played the jester he was and tried to get everyone smiling, but nobody got him—his humor, his art, his incredibly bountiful soul that refused to judge people, even as he was being openly scrutinized.
I was a good organizer, so I arranged gallery shows when possible, and made sure we got space in whatever city street market there was. I wrote reviews of his work for local presses and generally fulfilled the duties of personal assistant and PR manager. I didn’t know anything about this kind of work, but it came naturally and I found I could be persuasive, effective. Together we made sufficient money, which I handled. Life was fun, an adventure, right up to the moment he shot himself in the temple inside a motel room on the Piestewa Freeway outside Phoenix while I left to pay the receptionist.
I don’t know why he did it. I’ll never know why he did it. There’d been mood swings. Looking back I can see where maybe he’d been manic-depressive, but it hadn’t been obvious; I’d chalked it up to artistic temperament. There was a police inquiry, then the transfer to a morgue, where an autopsy was required, and then arrangements to be made for the body. His family was all back in Romania; the uncle had died years ago. I had a number. I knew they didn’t speak English, so I located a translator at the university and paid him to make the call. There was no wailing on the other end, he said. They agreed to a cremation, which meant numerous bilingual faxes sent back and forth with family signatures since I was not authorized to do anything except orchestrate the whole thing, something at least I was good at. I arranged for a cremation, covered the cost, and that was that. I didn’t collect the ashes. I sold all the paintings except for a choice dozen, sold the van, and headed on west, which had been our destination, in a second-hand Chevy Camaro. For the past two years I’d been doing odd jobs, working my way up the coast, taking whatever came along. The most important thing was to keep working, at anything, and not think. Dealing had been my greatest stretch, and within a week I was doing even that by rote.
We’d been pulling in overtime as the season was peaking. Extra pay, but interminable shifts. We were into our ninth hour slinging pears.
“Do you ever get sick of the smell of pears?” Sharon asked.
“You know, it’s funny, but I don’t really,” I said.
“I don’t either,” she said. “Peach work about makes me puke, but pears are OK. Did you know that hardly anyone is allergic to pears?”
“That’s a fact. If they do get an allergy, it’s from the peel. My boy Matt is allergic to most fruit, but he can eat pears. Bet you don’t know the one other food that most people aren’t allergic to.”
“Lettuce?” I tried.
“Wrong,” she said. “Sweet potatoes.”
“Bet you don’t know the five countries that border Romania,” I said.
“Romania,” she said evenly, like it was the most logical question I could have followed with. “I’m not that bad at geography, you know . . . Hungary’s one.”
“Four to go,” I said. I could sense her mind ticking over as she flung and tossed.
“Bulgaria, I guess would be another. And Russia.”
“Wrong on Russia,” I said.
“Well, some Soviet country, whatever . . . And maybe Turkey?”
“No,” I said.
“Yugoslavia—I mean Croatia, Bosnia, one of those Balkan countries.”
“That’s more like it,” I said.
“Don’t tell me,” she said.
We continued sorting and I began to feel I might be getting a WMSD because my lower back was starting to ache, and not a little. Our conversation was getting ringier, too.
“So we read all over that this blasted pear processor kills any possible germs, right?” I said. “So we really don’t need those oversize signs in the bathroom ordering us to ‘sanitize’ our hands, do we? We should be able to take a poop and come straight back to the line. I mean, really.”
“Who has time to take a poop anyway? But you’re right, you know. Do you think Saybeo deliberately sat next to me in the canteen? I been meaning to ask.”
“I think he might have,” I said. “But the way he kept talking about his family, I don’t know, he’s one married man.”
“Well, I’m one married woman. You heard me talk about my kids, too. Saybeo and me have a lot in common, the way I see it. He’s got a wild teenage daughter just like me. It’s not Slovenia, is it?”
“Nope. And I never heard him say she was wild.”
“She’s a teenager, she’s wild.”
“OK, OK,” I said. We kept slinging into the tenth hour. “How old you’d say Yvette was?” I’d seen her picture and she was a right little Lolita.
“You ever talk about birth control and that?” I asked.
“Talk about it! She’s already on the pill. I can tell you’ve never had kids.”
“I don’t see how you manage, I swear.”
“I’d manage a whole lot better if I had a little help from Peru,” she said. “Screw Romania.”
The season bore on. The fierce blue sky of July gave way to white heat. Striations of the vertical power poles surrounding the barren industrial complex along with the criss-crossing of wire gave a Pollockesque backdrop to the plant. With the blood red horizon of one early September evening it mutated into a vast and cataclysmic Mattis-Teutsch. Slashing brushwork; charged forms. Although our lunch break was prohibitively short, I made it a point to step outside for five minutes or so, to catch the light. It was that evening I decided to run with an idea based on a speed-induced scenario I’d played out in my head the day before on the line.
I had a suit still in the plastic bag from the cleaners. A pant suit, but a power suit. So after some delicate cut-and-paste art work back in my rented room early next morning and a trip to the photocopiers for a lamination, I carefully dressed and took extra care with my hair. I arrived at the plant at 1:00, when I knew I’d catch the plant manager in his glassed-in office which overlooked the floor. His secretary took my name and asked me to take a seat. I was hoping it wouldn’t be long because I was feeling a little on edge and didn’t want to think more about it. But I didn’t have to wait at all as it turned out. The secretary had walked straight into his office and as she left, she ushered me in. I’d pictured a craggy-faced man with heavy-lidded eyes and a head full of wiry gray hair, smoker’s cough, hemorrhoidal; so it came with a surprise to find such a near likeness slumped behind an oversized, dinged-up, gun-metal desk.
“What is it?” he bluntly asked.
“Mr. Thorp, don’t bother to get up, please,” I said as though I’d actually expected him to. He looked damp. “My name is Abbie Woodruff,” I continued, buoyed on, “and I’m a reporter for The New York Times.” I flipped open my ID, gave him a chance to look at it, then flipped it back. I hadn’t grown up with TV for nothing. And I knew the value of a standing position.
“I thought Trish said you were a sorter,” he said, taking me in with that crude up-and-down eye roll. At least I had his attention that way.
“Well, sir, I have been working the line, that’s true, but what no one knows, and what no one must know, regardless of what happens here, is that I’ve been working undercover, as a part of a series we’ve been doing on seasonal factory employment. Perhaps you’ve seen some of the articles? They run in the Sunday Supplement.”
“What the hell . . .”
“They’re available in the archives,” I said. “If you’d like copies—”
“What are you trying to say?” He was looking at me real good now.
“What I am saying, Mr. Thorp, not trying to say, is that I have a notebook full of irregularities here that are going to make for a riveting exposé and could damn well get your plant closed down.”
“Do the Roberts brothers know you’re here? I think you need to take this up with the Roberts brothers, wherever you’re going with this.” I knew the Roberts brothers were the founders of the plant—along with several others—and owed their expansion to a well-known investment company who retained them as CEO and CFO in the buyout; that was public knowledge easily gleaned from a little research. Beyond that, I was left banking on Thorp’s ignorance of any fine points related to that sphere of the business and so plowed on.
“The Roberts brothers don’t know I’m here, no. That would hardly be ‘undercover,’ would it?” I said. “But the enterprise that now holds controlling interest is aware of the Times series. Their internal audit agreed to it, in fact. Some concerns have been raised, and seems it’s in their interest to do a little housecleaning. If necessary. So for their sake, as well as yours, hear me out.”
“This has nothing to do with me, ma’am,” he said, shaking his head, “you need to speak with the Roberts brothers.”
“Mr. Thorp,” I said, seeing the need to get us off this fucking tack, “I was just about to talk to the Roberts brothers, who, from the infractions I’ve gathered here”—I held out a large portfolio—“are going to be tied up in court proceedings that will get this plant closed down, believe me. Because once I talk to the Roberts brothers there’s no turning back, their investment company will know about it and see to it.”
“You can read about it all in The New York Times next month—or will it run November? I can’t remember—but the most egregious concerns discriminatory plant hiring and promotion.” He furrowed his brow then and I didn’t know if it came with the effort to understand “egregious” or if some penny had sunk.
“I still think—”
“But here’s the thing, sir, which is why this has to remain confidential because quite frankly my job is on the line, too. I have violated a reporter’s first rule—don’t get involved. But for two and a half months I’ve been working next to a lady that I’ve come to care a great deal about.” I gave a quick summary of my friend’s background—including Stars and Stripes, Lolita, and what I’d come to learn of the mentally debilitating Fragile X Syndrome—and her history with the plant. “I don’t much give a damn about the Roberts brothers, but Sharon needs the plant. What I propose is very simple. And it’s to your benefit in every way. I’ll quash the exposé if you agree, because I sincerely care about this woman, but if you don’t comply, it’s going to press; that simple.” Then I laid it on him.
“I don’t know that there’s even any disagreement between us, ma’am,” he said then, lifting his hands in the air and affecting a look of what’s the problem? “I’ll look into what you say, perhaps there’s been an oversight in personnel.”
“That’s all I’m asking,” I said.
Sharon and I were sitting at Hinkers. She was telling me what it was like to work forklift, now that she’d gotten her certificate. The season was nearly over, but, as can happen, a position had opened up. And she was already signed up for next year, a first at NorthStar Packing.
“There’s nothing to it, really,” she said. “You just stick the forks into the open sides of the pallet, then raise the pallet to the correct height, and drive it to the loading docks. Then lower the thing and retract the forks.” All said with the accompaniment of a lot of hilarious robotic arm movement. “It took me a while with the levers, but I got it now. You’ve got to concentrate though, it’s not like the line.”
“Do you miss the line?” I asked.
“I miss talking to you, but otherwise, hell no. At least I get to exercise the brain a little. Bet you don’t know how much weight I can take on the pallet,” she said.
“So wrong. Say, Abbie, if I bring my Kodak tomorrow, will you take my picture?”
“Sure,” I said. “Show your hooters and we can make you a calendar girl.”
“Hey, there’s our song,” she said, and sprang out of her seat. I didn’t know “Born to Boogie” was our song, but I hit the floor. I felt light and sassy. We threw ourselves into the roistering crowd and gave it some bump and grind. A guy from quality control tapped me on the back and tried to pull me towards his big jiggly beer gut. I didn’t know though, quality control and sorter? I declined. As the music segued into “Proud Mary,” my mind pitched and drifted, like a pear bobbing down the line. Shit, I thought, I could have gone for 60 Minutes! And then I thought sieve!—the one word I’d needed at lunch to complete a crossword. Then, after a while, the rumble-tumble belt looping in my head mercifully shut down and I gave it up to the music.
We returned to the table, flushed but revved, with two cold drafts and two shots. On the way I passed the catwalker at the bar and for the sheer hoot of it, I gave him a look, a drop-dead come-on that was meant to haunt his every last wank.
“You never got your dance with Brock,” Sharon said, oblivious to my tease but on the right wavelength as usual.
“You never got a roll with Saybeo,” I said.
“In my dreams, honey, in my dreams. He only had one hand, but it was pretty good.” And she let out with one of her belly laughs that was instantly contagious.
“Say, Sharon,” I said, in the drifting mode of our conversations, “don’t you hate it when people call you ma’am. I hate that.”
“They can call me ma’am as long as I get the wham bam.”
“You are incorrigible.”
“My middle name, if I could pronounce it.”
We hugged goodbye Friday night two weeks later. Fast and quick, like men. Public displays of affection, easy sentiment, that wasn’t our way. You’d never hear Sharon sign off a phone call home with I love you. It’s part of what made her the real deal.
“By the way, honey, they’re hiring down at Wheeler’s,” she said.
“I know,” I said.
“Going for it?”
“Well, I’ve got to think about it,” I said, meaning I had to seriously think.
“Don’t think too hard!” she called as she turned to walk away.
“I won’t!” I said. Because that’s the way you answered that. But I was on it. Like pears on the line, I was on it.
A mist had cast a wet net round the cannery, holding it fast to the river lowlands. It was hard to focus on the road ahead as I pulled out of the lot onto the slope ahead, but there was no cause for concern because it only led one way: up, up, and out.
Jill Adams lives in Barcelona, Spain, where she teaches English language and literature in addition to editing and publishing The Barcelona Review, founded in 1997. Her work has appeared in Word Riot and Gargoyle. She is currently working on a collection.
Header Image: Creative Commons, photo by NSW DPI, modified.