Two months after we moved onto our land, we ran out of money. For some reason, this astonished us. It wasn't that we didn't have enough for a winter's trip to Florida or a second car; we didn't have enough for a comb or a bottle of cooking oil. Laying aside my copy of Helen and Scott Nearing's Living the Good Life, I took a job at the local canning
When there were fish to cut, the factory whistle blew. If the fish came from Canada, or southern Maine and not by boat, we always knew beforehand, because the factory trucks hurled themselves down the Pond Road in the dark. The Pond Road bears a certain resemblance to a subway tunnel. The trees on either side of it grow up onto the shoulder, and there isn't a curve in it.
Nothing hits this road like a truck with a sloshing belly of fish. It is as if the driver knows the road so well, he dismisses it. In his mind, he is already at the factory hardtop. We used to wake to the strain of metal and rubber, hearing them pushed toward another dimension. The air cracked with the roaring will of that truck to become a man's silent thought.
Women, not men, cut fish. Men unloaded the cold tanks, and bodies, wide-eyed with a surprise they no longer felt, ascended the conveyor belt that drummed down the length of the cutting room. Men heaved the cans into the trough above the belt. And men supervised the women's work.
Bullet was a supervisor. As we thrust our arms against the flow of fish and diverted a viscous school of herring onto our stainless steel sinks, as we cut the tails to resemble sardines, or sliced up to the gills for "fish steaks," our taped fingers holding scissors that had been honed to blades so sharp they could have shaved our legs, as we hurried to fill our cans and to fill our trays with thirty filled cans, Bullet prowled the aisles, making sure we did everything just so.
He didn't hurry. Ash built up on his cigarette. Like a Fourth of July snake, the ash bent but did not break. Occasionally, he leaned toward one of us:
"Put another few in this can, Grace."
"Them's too big, Ida."
Women were paid by piecework. Some, the fastest among us, had a rhythm -lunging, snapping, gutting, placing - every gesture blurring with the next. Their feet scraped a two-step against the cement floor.
My cutting style was slow. How far from the caudal fin should I cut this fish so it will look like a sardine rather than a herring's tail? Here? Well, how about here? A bell rang and the belt stopped for the morning break, my second day on the job. The women loosened their plastic aprons and walked over to sit on the benches by the Coke machine.
One, as she passed me, hissed:
"They'll fire you, sure thing."
"You're too slow, dearie. You ain't worth their money."
My fingers ached. The stomach acids of the fish had peeled away the skin on my palms. It was exhausting to stand up hour after hour. But I couldn't afford to lose the job.
There was a cutter, well into her eighties, who wore a red nylon wig that always slipped over one eye as she cut, revealing dark sprouts of hair at the back of her head. Her legs were as muscled as a runner's. She never looked tired. If she can do it, I thought, so can I.
At the break, a few women would gather around my sink, engaging me in quiet, formal talk. As if they barely noticed what their hands were doing, they would finish cutting the fish to complete my tray. At first, I was ashamed. Some were twice my age. I murmured how they should be resting, how I could finish up.
"We don't have much else to do, dearie. And besides, I don't like to sit," one answered. Moved by their kindness, I almost cried.
Like most of the women in the cutting room, I would have liked to become a "sniffer." Sniffers were better paid. They worked in the dark sorting rooms, smelling cans that were ready to be boxed and sent.
Sniffers hunted, like bloodhounds, for that stray whiff of leaking, soured fish. Or, I thought, closing the blades of my scissors so gradually through a herring that the swollen entrails nudged against its scales, maybe I'd like to be president of the company. I'd change a few jobs, first thing. I'd see how Bullet cuts a fish.
The herring along our shore spawn in summer in shallow water. Because the fish were being netted so intensely year-round, the vast schools that used to number as many as three billion individuals were smaller in size and there were fewer of them. Factory boats from other countries plowed beyond the two-hundred-mile limit. Our own boats,
hounded by competition and a diminishing source, were picking up the fish on their spawning grounds. They brought back in their holds herring that were swollen with eggs. When we cut into them, the eggs spurted out and clumped on our arms and aprons.
"I'm cutting up my daughter's job," commented one woman as she jabbed for another fish. By the end of the day, the eggs had dried into rubbery, itchy mats all over us.
No matter how the belt rattled and the cans clashed, the women talked.
"I seen him down there midnights, prowling about."
"And she shows her face 'round here."
"Yessah, don't care who knows it."
"Seems like her sister was just the same. And look how she turned out."
"He'll get his tail burned one of these days, fine and dandy."
"Did you know that Mabel's been up to the hospital?"
"No. What ails her?"
When the last whistle blew, late afternoons, most of the women piled into the yellow factory van to be driven home. Gulls keeled around the factory. The waves sparkled. There was always a brisk, salty wind. I walked through the screaming birds, letting the wind blow away some of the smell of fish. On the Pond Road, I stopped to pick blueberries. I pulled off my sneakers and lowered my feet into the icy water of a stream. As I sat within the hot-baked smell of the evergreens, my sore feet in the wintry water, things came clean again.
The Lines: Literal recalling
1. Why did Susan Shetterly need a job?
2. What job did she get?
3. Why is she in trouble on the job?
4. Why is she surprised the other women help her?
Between the Lines: Interpreting
5. Is Susan a native or newcomer?
6. What led Susan to lose her idealistic notions of life in Maine?
7. Does the type of job she is doing require continued education or “skilled labor”.
8. Would her type of job be in an urban or rural setting?
9. How do the actions of the women illustrate their character? Are their actions different than their words?
Beyond the Lines: Analyze & Evaluate
10. What does Susan mean when she closes the story with the words, “things came clean again”?