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In July, even in the dead middle of the night, you can’t breathe the air in the Atlas pickle plant. You have to suck it. The smell is sharp and thick and sets the hairs in your nose on end and makes you feel like your lungs are getting as slicked over as your white Keds tennies, their laces green and pungent from dragging through puddles of pickle juice.
It was three in the morning, and it had been a bad night for Baby and me. Alfred Lynn Tucker—a tub of lard with bright red hair, glasses, and big, dirty-looking teeth, who was, unfortunately, our boss—had been on our case the whole night long. Not that he wasn’t on our case most every other night. Just tonight was worse than usual.
When we came on shift at eleven, he started us off squirting brine into glass jars full of cucumbers that rolled past us on a conveyer belt. The brine came out of an old black rubber hose contraption connected to a wooden vat, and had a nozzle kind of like a garden hose. I bet we weren’t on that job even fifteen minutes when he pulled us off, because we didn’t let go of the trigger on the hose between squirts and a lot of brine somehow got wasted on the floor. It was an old rusty squeezer that a big man would have had trouble pumping, much less a girl, and it was just impossible to keep letting up on it. Our hands would have fallen off. You’d think Alfred Lynn personally paid for the brine out of his own pocket.
Then he put us to setting empty jars on the automatic packer belt where they passed under a chute that poured the cucumbers into them, but the stupid belt went so fast that we had to practically throw them on, and a few got broken. Not that many—they only had to stop and clean it out twice. Which might have been all right, but on top of that, the speed of the jars passing by right under my nose made me sick, and I threw up on the belt. Ever since I was a little girl, I have had a problem with motion sickness, so it wasn’t that big of a deal. Most of it went on the floor. Baby went and got me a Coke and I felt better, but Alfred Lynn had no pity whatsoever. He yelled at me, like I could have helped it or something, and then he moved us to the machine that cut pickles up into the little crinkled disks they use to put on hamburgers.
By that time, Baby and I were getting a case of the simples—which is not unusual for us at four in the morning—and we started giggling and throwing pickle slices at each other. I admit this time we were in the wrong. It’s just hard to take a job seriously that you know you’ll be leaving when September rolls around. I didn’t want to think about all the regular hands that have to work here the whole year, summer and winter, day in and day out, all their lives. I mean, not that there’s anything wrong with it, but can you just see Baby and me in forty-five years at the pickle plant Christmas party they hold in Sweet Valley’s concrete-block community room, stepping proudly up to the podium and accepting our Timex retirement watches? On our tombstones, it would say she was a good pickle packer. A whole lifetime spent putting pickles into jars. Not these girls, thank you muchly. It was bad enough working here in the summers to make enough money for a few school clothes.
Alfred Lynn passed by and, as luck would have it, got hit on the back of the neck with a piece of pickle. It stuck there like a round green wart. He had a really loud voice.
“All right, y’all two nitwits! You think this is fun and games? I’m going to show you fun and games. Y’all can just peel onions the rest of the night.”
“Oh please, Alfred Lynn. Don’t send us to the onion room,” Baby pleaded. “We’ll try real hard. We promise not to get in any more trouble. Please, please, please!”
I hated to see Baby grovel, but it was better than going to the onion room. Baby kneeled down on the floor and put her hands together like she was praying. I tried as hard as I could not to laugh.
Alfred Lynn’s face swelled up and turned blue-purple with rage, he wanted to hit Baby so bad. He would probably have done her some real damage if he had—Baby is only four-foot-ten and weighs eighty-six pounds with all her clothes on. She is Filipino, but you couldn’t tell if you only heard her talk. Her daddy was with the American army during the war, and somehow they ended up here in Arkansas when she was five. When she first got here, she couldn’t speak a word of English, and of course she learned from all the little redneck kids she played with—mostly me—so she sounds just like everybody else. She kids around about it—calls herself a Filbilly. Get it? A Filipino hillbilly? Well, I think it is funny. Whatever she is, she is the most beautiful girl I have ever seen in my life—cute little pug nose, creamy tan skin, and big chocolate eyes; long straight shiny black hair that hangs down to her waist. And she might be little, but as the guys say, she is stacked. She wears tight white short-shorts to work, and makes grown men nervous. Including Alfred Lynn, as much as he would hate to admit it. So, since he couldn’t hit her, he just sucked in his breath, clenched his fists, and gave us one more chance.
“All right. You get one more chance. I’m putting you out on the relish belt, and if you two don’t have sense enough to pick out the trash from the cukes and throw it in a barrel, then you will be peeling onions. And I don’t mean maybe.”
We followed Alfred Lynn out to the dock. He moved pretty fast for somebody that would’ve dressed out at three hundred pounds at the slaughterhouse. We tried not to follow too close. You could always smell Alfred Lynn fifty feet before he got to you. Him and his old daddy, Walter Tucker, lived together out in the bottoms by the Arkansas River in a tar-paper shack. It didn’t have running water or an indoor toilet, so I guess maybe it wasn’t all his fault that he didn’t wash more often. Or it could have been that his sweat had permanently turned into pickle brine from him being the night foreman at Atlas for ten years. Whatever it was, he sure did stink.
It was, at least, less like a furnace out on the dock. A conveyer belt ran the length of the concrete porch, under a roof, with the sides open to the warm night air. The smell was a lot better out here, too, even though we faced the back lot, with its giant wooden vats of pickles soaking in brine. Some of them had been out there for years, but supposedly they were still edible. At least they still sold them, and I’m sure they didn’t want to take the chance of poisoning somebody and getting sued.
Further on out, you could see the glow from the streetlights of Sweet Valley and catch the headlights of the occasional truck on Route 66.
We pulled up stools and joined the row of women who were halfheartedly picking out rotten cucumbers and pieces of trash and throwing them into barrels while the good-but-not-perfect cukes rolled on down the belt to be ground up in the chopper at the end and mixed with onions, peppers, and spices to make hot dog relish. Hunching over the belt made your back hurt, but it was the best job we’d had all night.
Linda Sue Miller sat across from me. She was our same age, twenty-one, but had gotten married in the eleventh grade and already had three kids. She had short, curly blond hair with dark roots and still carried around the extra fifteen pounds from her last baby. She was one of the year-round hands. Not much of an advertisement for young love.
“Hey, Cherry. Hey, Baby. Y’all have been on a go-around tonight, I hear.” She slapped at a mosquito. “These mosquitoes are eating me alive. They might just as well put regular lightbulbs out here—these old yellow bug lights don’t do a lick of good, and they make it hard to see what you’re throwing out. I sure as heck wouldn’t eat the relish that comes out of this place.”
“Oh, it’s not bad,” Mary Jo Bledsoe said, scratching her nose with the back of her wrist. “That brine purifies it. My kids eat it.”
“Your kids would eat a scalded dog, Mary Jo. They can’t come in my door without they eat everything that’s not nailed down. I never saw such a bunch for stuffing themselves. You’d think they never had a meal at home.”
Mary Jo’s four kids were famous for dropping in at the neighbors’ houses right at mealtime.
“Anytime my kids bother you, Linda Sue, you can just send them home. Although if you do, you might have to hire a baby-sitter or spend time with your three squalling brats yourself.”
“Would y’all please not fight? It’s bad enough out here without having to listen to y’all two ragging on each other.” I said it as nicely as I could. Apparently, the night had gotten to me more than I thought. My nerves were starting to get a little frayed. I changed the subject. “What do you hear from Robert, Linda?”
Linda’s husband was in Vietnam, like a lot of other boys we knew. He could probably have gotten out of it, because of the kids and all, but he felt like if he invested two years, he could make some good money and get benefits and education that he wouldn’t be able to get as a high school dropout. In a way he was right, because their last baby—which got started on one of his leaves—only cost them something like two dollars with the army paying for it. I wouldn’t have done it, though. Too big a gamble. Guys were dropping over there right and left. It was really depressing to watch Walter Cronkite every night on TV and stare at all the pictures to see if you recognized somebody you went to school with. Two boys from our class had already been killed, Jerry Golden and Bobby Richmond. Seven of our classmates—we only had fifty-four in our class—had been drafted or had volunteered to go over there in the three years since we graduated, but Bobby was the first to be killed. He hadn’t been over there even a week and was in Saigon at the dentist’s office fixing to get his checkup when a kid on a bicycle rode by and threw a satchel bomb into the waiting room. Ten guys were killed, plus the dentist and the girl who cleaned teeth. A little kid did it. Is that crazy or what?
Then Jerry Golden got killed by a booby trap somewhere, I think in Quang something, or someplace that sounds like that. I don’t really know a whole lot of details about it, but it was doubly horrible because he was the president of our class and a really great guy, and even though we liked Bobby a lot, Jerry was one of our gang. We had a big memorial service at the high school for him, and practically the whole town turned out. All of us kids took it hard, not to mention his parents, as you would expect.
That whole war is insane. I know there are a lot of people who are for it because of the fear of Communism spreading and all, but I mean, really, what does it matter if Vietnam is Communist or not? Cuba, which is a heck of a lot closer, is Communist and it hasn’t harelipped any Americans yet. And what about China? I didn’t notice us invading China when it went Communist. We didn’t study Vietnam at all in geography class. So now our guys have to go and die for a country they can’t even find on the map?
When they held that big peace march on the Pentagon year before last, in ’67, we had our own protest rally at the university. A lot of kids turned out in spite of the fact that it rained and there were rumors that the FBI had spies taking names and photographs with little hidden spy cameras. Most of the kids who came to the rally were art majors, like Baby and me, and English majors, but you saw science majors and even a few guys who were in ROTC. It was getting to where more and more kids were against the war, and Baby and I were two of them. I mean, who would be the next to go? The war hung over all our heads like the shadow of a hawk on the chicken yard.
Linda tried to act like she wasn’t worried, but she wasn’t too good at it.
“He was all right two weeks ago. At least that’s when the last letter I got was dated. He said he was going to send me a set of dishes and a Japanese movie camera. They can get that stuff real cheap from over there. He already sent me a cocktail ring and a Vietnamese housecoat, and little ones for the babies. It’s real pretty—red, with one of those stand-up collars. Lot of embroidery making out dragons and things on the back. I think it’s silk, or at least a real high-quality polyester.”
“Do you think he could get me a set of dishes?” Mary Jo wanted to know. “Can you pick out the pattern, or does he just have to take what he gets?”
“I don’t think so, Mary Jo. It’s just for the families.” Linda yawned and threw out her gazillionth rotten pickle of the night.
Baby yawned and so did I. So did Mary Jo and everybody else on down the line. A big drop of sweat ran down my neck, and I wiped it off with my shirt collar. Only two more hours until quitting time. A breeze came up. We all turned our faces for a breath of moving air.
“Oooh, feel it. Here comes the windchill.” Baby sighed.
Mary Jo snorted. “What are you talking about, Baby? It’s hot summertime. There ain’t no chill in that breeze. You won’t hear the weatherman talking windchill until way up in the winter.”
“I don’t see why they don’t,” Baby said. “It’s the same thing. All it means is that the weather is fooling you.”
“Yeah. See, Mary Jo, like, there you sit, here in this pickle-plant shed, sweaty and hot as all get-out, when the old wind whips up, blows on you, and makes you think it’s got cooler. Of course that’s great, but then just as soon as you’re nice and comfortable, the wind dies down and the heat slaps you in the face again, and that makes it worse than ever.”
“So it feels good while it lasts but it was a lie all the time, right?” It made sense to me.
“Oh, I get it,” Linda said. “That’s cute. Well, I don’t care. I never minded a little lie if it felt good. Especially from a guy. Guys have been lying to me ever since I can remember.”
“Don’t feel like the Lone Ranger—you and all the rest of us,” Mary Jo put in. “Every man I know is a born liar. Not a one of them will ever be honest with a woman. You just gotta figure they’re all the time blowing hotter or colder than they say they are. And it’s durned hard to know which it is.”
We all agreed.
“In fact, I think most men would rather lie, even if the truth would serve them better,” Linda added.
“Amen.” We all nodded. Wisely. Like we had a lot of experience. I nodded too, even though I probably had the least experience of us all. I didn’t have a boyfriend at the moment, and it was sort of embarrassing.
More cucumbers rolled down the line.
“Looky here, Cherry. There’s an old rotten potato. I swear, I think Alfred Lynn throws junk in these cucumbers just as a test to see if we’re asleep or not.” Baby reached out to take the potato, then pulled her hand back.
“Baby, why didn’t you get that old thing?” Now I’d have to get it when it came by me. “You are just worthless as a trash picker. I’m going to tell Alfred Lynn on you.”
I reached out, but Baby put her hand on my arm to stop me.
“I don’t know what it is, Cherry, but it’s not a potato. What are those little things sticking up out of the sides? They look kind of like . . .”
“Legs! Baby, it’s a rat!” I have to admit that I screamed my head off. I never was too crazy about mice, much less rats.
When I started screaming, so did everybody else. Stools went flying, and Baby jumped up on top of me and knocked me over. We both landed on the grimy concrete as the rat drifted by above our heads on the conveyer belt. It was lying on his back, legs stuck straight out of its bloated belly like black twigs. Its mouth was open and a blue, swollen tongue was wedged between its sharp little teeth.
All of us huddled together and watched in silence as it slipped off the end of the belt into the grinder. There was a sick, soft pop. Foul-smelling pink spew sprayed up. With a gritty screech as the steel blades bit into its bones, the machine stopped. For a minute more we stared, our mouths open, not moving a muscle. Then, like a group of dimwits, we all turned, as one, to see Alfred Lynn thundering down on us like the wrath of God.