Gore Street, 1973
The summer after the fire, the girl across the lane got me a job on the line at her uncle’s cannery. We were 25 women of varying ages, who drifted in and out throughout the summer due to whatever our private business was. Many were new immigrants from the east, the others from small towns along the north coast, just here for the season. No one spoke to me much, and I liked that just fine. The girl across the lane, Monica, worked upstairs in the office, where her uncle sometimes read porno magazines right in front of her.
The way it went for us on the line was this: gutter, cutter, canner. Before we touched them, the fish were scrubbed and removed of their heads and tails. Most days, I was stationed right next to the mouth of the machine that chopped them up, my whole body rattled 10 times a minute by the pounding of its blades. The bodies slipped into place in front of my station, I yanked out their stomach, their heart, the tubes that kept everything moving, scraped them clean with the serrated spoon on the end of my knife, then put them back on an upper belt to be fed along, washed again, cut into pieces and canned. The canners had it best. They didn’t have to deal with the parts like we did — they got the evenly-sized steaks, the not-quite-fish-anymore, the Coho puzzle pieces. There was a group of older women, all from the same town up north, that did most of the canning. Only when the season’s peak had subsided, and they returned to their families with enough cash to get through the winter, did a gutter like me have the chance to move up the ranks. If I could last that long.
Despite our knee-high rubber boots, 10-pound rubber aprons, hairnets and masks, the thick, briny reek of fish clung to me for a good two hours after my shift ended. I drove home with my windows down to try to shed it as I crossed the Second Narrows bridge, but as soon as the air settled it would fill my nose again. Some days I’d sit there in it, my arms aching, long after I’d parked. Sometimes I’d sit there until the streetlights came on, or until someone made a point to wave to me, to warn me that I was tiptoeing the line of notably strange behaviour, and that I’d best rein it in. I’d sit there until I got some sign that time was still moving forward, that I still existed, that it wasn’t the smell of my own rotting body that stung at my eyes.
The really good money was made when two or three boats came in at once. We had to get through the catches as soon as possible, so we would work hours into overtime, eyes inadvertently weeping from the smell, our aprons dripping with viscera. My first OT, my knife slipped through my glove and into the flesh of my palm. I screamed, but nobody looked at me. Silently, a Japanese woman pulled me off, tightly wrapped the wound with gauze and handed me a fresh pair of gloves. I worked five more hours. When I slid the glove off at the end of the day, it was filled with blood, and the skin on my hand was crimson and puckered like I’d lingered too long in the bath.
I’d been there a month when Monica asked me to join her for a drink after work. She pulled me off the line to ask, in front of everyone. I was flattered, but the eyes of every woman on the line singed the skin on the back of my neck. When I found my place again, the girl next to me jabbed at my side with her elbow. I glanced over at her. She was about my age, her green eyes glimmering above the handkerchief covering her mouth and nose.
“What’d she ask you?”
Beneath my own mask I chewed my lip. “She just wants me to go for a drink, I guess.”
The girl rolled her eyes. “She’s never asked any of us for a drink.”
“We’re from the same neighbourhood,” I said as I ripped the trachea out of a Coho.
I shrugged. She meant it was obvious because I was the only white girl on the line. The fisherman called me Princess, laughed at me when I first started and kept dropping the knife into the gut trough.
She was growing exasperated. “I think you should go. She chooses who works where, who gets called in when. What station they’re at. She’s got a lot of power around here. You could help us all out.”
Monica had told me she was very important. Monica had also told me that I probably shouldn’t make many friends on the line, because I wouldn’t have anything in common with them.
“So? Don’t you wanna get on canning?
I stared at her for a second as headless fish continued to land on my belt. Why should she care what I do? I kept gutting. Slit, rip, scrape. She did the same. Then:
“Some of the other girls told me your story. Sorry.”
I pretended not to hear her. Slit. Rip. Scrape.
The next evening, after I’d washed my hair three times, I crossed the lane and knocked on Monica’s back door. She answered, smiling, in a slim-fitting paisley dress. “Do you mind driving?”
The bar was new, down on Granville. Monica walked in like she was a regular and settled on a bar stool, patting the one next to her. She crossed her legs, aiming her smooth thigh toward the rest of the room, and lifted a finger to flag the bartender. Two Manhattans, and a bowl of peanuts.
I had never had a Manhattan before — it sounded like it should have been sweeter than it was, but Monica assured me it was a very fashionable choice. While I sipped, I felt her eyes roving around the large room, evaluating the collected men. She leaned toward me, her fingers delicately gripping the base of her sweating glass.
“There’s a big law firm just around the corner — apparently this is the bar to meet a lawyer.” She sat back and took a sip of her Manhattan, lips pursed, barely tasting anything.
The Manhattan burned my throat but I felt its warmth spread slowly through my body, pooling in my hips and the backs of my knees. I thought about Monica in the office, sitting primly at her desk while her uncle thumbed through Playboy and rubbed at his zipper.
The doors to the bar opened and closed — two young men, dressed in suits. I heard Monica take a sharp inhale. She stretched that long leg as they passed us. The shorter of the two looked at that long leg. He said, “Aren’t you something.” Monica pretended not to hear, but she took a real sip of her Manhattan this time. I watched it slide down, all the way to her hips.
The men invited us to join their table. I excused myself to go to the ladies, but no one seemed particularly bothered; I heard Monica call me a “girl who works for her” as I walked away.
The ladies’ room was empty. I stood in front of the mirror but didn’t really want to look. My lipstick had all but worn off, left behind on the rim of my glass. I tore off a bit of paper and wet it. When I brought my fingers to my face, I smelled rubber and fish. I decided to leave the lipstick as it was.
When I left the washroom, I heard Monica’s braying laugh but couldn’t see her. I imagined her slinging her long hair over her shoulder with her head tilted back, trailing her fingers along the edge of her collarbone to draw attention to her decolletage like they say to do in Cosmopolitan. The idea was to be sweet but dull, like a sugar cube. Best suited for complimenting something stronger.
I walked to the door, out onto the street, and climbed into my car. Monica would probably thank me, for giving one of those young lawyers a way to rescue her. I thought about driving into the park to the zoo to watch the polar bear pace around his cement pool. But my fingers would not turn the key. I caught sight of my lunch pail, sitting on the back seat. My gloves were still in there, balled up, reeking and stiff with fish scales. I pulled one out and gagged at the smell, amplified by the car’s heat. A thought grabbed hold of me. I put both gloves in my purse.
I found Monica and the two lawyers in a back corner and slid into the booth. Monica winked at me. It only took a moment for the smell to begin to rise from my purse. One of the lawyers tweaked his nose. Monica’s patient smile began to fade, but she held strong, nodding along to the short lawyer’s dull story. Finally, he stopped, grimacing. “Do you smell that?”
Monica’s eyes met mine for a second. Surely she knew. “Perhaps a busboy mistakenly took the trash out through the restaurant?”
The taller lawyer stood up and walked a few feet away from us, confused. As he made his way back, I watched him realize that it was me. He stared. I stared back.
“It’s … your friend.”
Monica laughed nervously. “We work in a cannery — well, she works on the line, and I work in the office —”
The short lawyer gagged and climbed over Monica to get out of the booth. “That’s vile.”
I began to laugh. I laughed until Monica got up and followed the short lawyer to the other side of the restaurant. I laughed until the bartender told me to leave. I laughed as I sped into the darkening park with my windows down, the wind so strong it stung where my hair flicked my face.
The zoo was closed by the time I got there but the fence was easy enough to climb. The sleeping polar bear glowed in the darkness, so painfully out of his environment that I was overcome with grief to look at him. I threw my gloves toward his pool. Maybe the smell would comfort him. Maybe the fish I tore apart were the same fish he caught, in his home, a place where a white bear could lie down on a white field and be lost to everyone except himself.
Monica’s car was gone from the driveway across the lane before I left for work. I drove half-speed, trying to delay the inevitable. Everything could be different if you would just control yourself, my mother used to say, before she got tired of saying it. She was right. But she didn’t understand how little control really factored into it, sometimes. How a thought would arrive in the form of pinpricks on the backs of my eyeballs. How it would start to burn beneath my skin. How my body instinctively responded to its demand to be realized, like a cervix widening before birth.
I pulled into the cannery lot and killed the engine. I was certain I would be fired on the spot. My father had often told me that I had what he called a “defiant streak.” He was often trying to cure me of this quality.
Someone knocked on my windshield and I jumped — the green-eyed girl from the line. She waved me out of the car.
“You’re gonna be late.”
I thanked her and started to walk toward the building and she jogged to catch up.
“How were the drinks? You ask her about moving to canning?”
I stopped and turned around. “I forgot.”
She rolled her eyes and pushed past me through the door. I reached out to grab it but she let it fall shut behind her. I closed my eyes. I could feel a grinding in my sternum, like two gears running out of sync. For once I just wanted to get on the line, wanted the predictable rhythm of cut, gut, can. The way the work ate time felt like a kind of magic. It ate up hours, days, weeks and always wanted as much as you were willing to give it. I didn’t want any of my time.
Monica called everyone over to the base of the stairs. She reminded me of a figurehead on a boat, in a white cotton blouse. She looked tired. I wondered what had happened between her and the short lawyer. Maybe they’d gone home together. Maybe he’d stripped off her paisley dress and kissed her breasts and her stomach and said sweet things to her. Or maybe he’d brutalized her. There was a new bruise just under her knee cap.
A few people were being reassigned. I waited as they all filed to their new positions, until I was the only one left. Monica stared down at me. I stared at the bruise on her leg.
“We have a special job for you.”
The cutting machine was prone to clogging. The newly-separated heads and tails fell down wide chutes that emptied into giant steel bins, but the chutes could get jammed, the heads and the tails could begin to pile up, and if they weren’t cleared in time, the machine could break down. If it broke down, it could cost the cannery a day of work. A day of work was worth more than most of our lives. Monica glared down at me like a queen ordering an execution as I descended the steps into the bowels of the machine in hip-waders, a thick wool balaclava covering all but my eyes. She handed me a long iron rod, which I was to use to knock loose anything that needed to be knocked loose. Then, she left.
It was dark. The smell was powerful, iron and oil and ocean and rot. The machine roared above me as I levelled the rod and knocked the discarded fish parts from the chute above, but I could barely reach. I inched my feet closer to the edge of the platform that looked down onto the steel bin and tried again, this time successfully freeing a deluge of bloody pieces. My stomach roiled. The air felt as thick as cream, coating the inside of my mouth. More death than oxygen.
After 10 minutes, my arms were groaning like never before, the balaclava was wet from sweat and my breath, and I felt at any minute that I might pitch forward into the seemingly bottomless pit in front of me. The small slivers of light from the warehouse above shone on the scales of the fish heads — and the eyes. I blinked them away. Every time I churned the parts I saw flashes of impossible images in silver and black and red. A whale, breaching. The yawning mouth of the polar bear. The cat. The cat that wouldn’t stay outside. The cat that climbed back into the house through a window in the basement as I watched from the shed.
As soon as my mind wandered, I dropped the rod into the bin of heads. I reached for it and it slipped, slid down below the surface. I wanted to cry, to scream. Down there it felt like every minute stretched into 10. All the time, watching the fish parts pour down from above.
I turned my back on the chute and stared into the darkness instead. The machine rattled on above me. I could hear nothing else, only the roar of automation. The roar. The cat, mewing from the top of the stairs, didn’t realize what was coming. I followed her up. Father was in his bed, not moving, not making a noise. The smoke from the kitchen clawed at my eyes and throat. The fire was louder than I expected, full of impossible sounds like they were playing from the window of a passing car. An old Sunday school hymn. A bath filling slowly. A cough. I called the cat. She was gone again. I sat there, at the top of the stairs, until it got so hot I could hardly breathe, until I forced myself to get up. He never moved.
The machine made a great shuddering noise. I had let the heads pile up. Gagging, I reached into the fish and tried to find the rod. It had been swallowed. I crouched on the platform and lowered myself in, up to the waist, and waded toward the chute. I would use my hands. The heads hammered against my chest. The eyes. I pushed them aside. I pushed them down.
My mother wrote me a letter, just before the fire, from wherever she was living. She said, I think there is something wrong with you.She said, only God can help you. She said, please don’t look for me.
I never had — looked for her, that is. I understood. It is more dangerous to try to stop a boulder rolling down a hill than it is to let it wreck what it will wreck. A boulder doesn’t have a defiant streak. A boulder just knows that it is picking up speed.
Monica came to get me after four gruelling hours, told me to get back to gutting. I hosed myself off as best I could and rejoined the line dripping wet, stinking worse than anything. The green-eyed girl gave me a pitying look, like you might give a dog whose owner won’t stop yanking on the leash. When Monica closed the office door behind her, the girl said: “So, what did you do?”
“I guess I embarrassed her,” I said. “In front of two lawyers.”
The green-eyed girl shook her head. “She’s a cow, y’know.”
“Totally,” I said, already distracted by the wave I could feel coming. My gutting knife kept moving, over and over, as my bones crackled under my skin.
When the bell rang to end our shift, the girl pulled down her mask and smiled at me. “See you tomorrow.”
No, I wanted to answer. You’ll never see me again.
Once it was in neutral, it wasn’t difficult to roll Monica’s unlocked AMC Gremlin down the lane, or to find the two wires I needed to cross to start it. It smelled sweet and clean inside, a hand-sewn sachet of lavender tucked into the glove box with an emergency box of Playtex. This close, her life looked just as perfect as it did from far away. Monica kept her hair clean, kept dirt out from under her nails, only picked up bruises when there was a lawyer on the line. Letters from Monica’s mother started with I miss you and ended with please come find me. It occurred to me that I might be the worst thing to ever happen to her.
I turned off the headlights as I entered the park, soft on the accelerator as I glided past the darkened, shuttered zoo. Monica’s Gremlin just barely fit down the trail that ran along the back perimeter of the polar bear enclosure, cedar boughs dragging softly like feather dusters against the windows. I backed up as close to the fence as I could and opened the trunk, where the buckets of fish dross had tipped and now soaked into the carpet.
The bolt cutters I had taken from a longshoreman’s truck were nearly too heavy to hold, but they made fast work of the fence. With every snap I paused for a shout or the long beam of a flashlight, but nothing came. Nothing, except the slow, lumbering body of the bear.
I clipped the last link and pushed against the fence until the piece fell to the ground. The bear blinked slowly. I had woken him up. He took a step onto the fallen fence and seemed surprised by it. He huffed air out of his cheeks. I backed up and climbed back into Monica’s car, and he stretched his long, tapered head toward the open trunk, sniffing. I started the car. He flinched, but the fish had caught his nose, and he seemed powerless to control his advancing feet. I drove slow, stopping to let him catch a bite or two, until we reached the road that circled the park. The lights of the North Shore glittered across the inlet. To the east, the docks at the foot of Gore were dark, and would be until tomorrow. I rolled down the windows and killed the engine as the bear snorted through the contents of the trunk, his snout turning red. Both of our screaming urges settled into contentment and I breathed deep.
He would find his way from here. He would catch a ride north on a fishing boat and paw great glimmering salmon from crystal clear waters and crush them between his teeth without bothering to gut them at all. The smell of them would be sweet. There would be no noise except wind and water and ice. He would walk for a long time and find a great white plain, and he would lie down, and there would be no eyes on him ever again.
Jocelyn Tennant‘s fiction has appeared in Funicular, Joyland, Room Magazine, Bad Nudes, SAD Mag and elsewhere. She lives and writes in Vancouver, BC.