The Chinese Barracks

Ten days after the opening, the work schedules were already growing long. Betty explained it all to Hannah. You worked until your job was done, or you worked until someone stopped you. Jozef, who worked like a machine and chased overtime, never slept until he was ordered to. You were called a broken taco if you worked less than sixteen hours, a champion if you worked more than twenty-four. You compared hours of overtime. You compared hallucinations the way sailors compared tattoos. The shadows of the fresh-frozen house got animated late at night, roused by the clanging of the belt and the slap of the salmon as they fell into empty metal bins, or the slap of salmon as they fell against other salmon. They all saw them, creeping shadows and bright spots in their vision. When the salmon came in half rotted from Bristol Bay, the smell agitated the shadows even more, making them flap like bats. The dark circles under everyone’s eyes grew luminous and sometimes bled like mascara down their cheeks. It was impossible to fall asleep with all this chattering movement: a foreman would grab someone as they stumbled and tell them to take five hours to sleep, but without fail when you lay down the rhythm of some chain clanking in the wind, some seagull, the waves or the waving of the curtain would demand attention and there was a simple and perilous choice—to give it attention and remain awake, or to close your eyes and encounter the current of adrenaline that gave you horrible rhythmic dreams: dreams of conveyer belts of fish; when the conveyer belt stopped you scissor-kicked yourself awake. Everyone understood the slipperiness of the minds of sleepy people, and everyone kept up a watchful camaraderie that had as much to do with self-preservation as it did with brotherhood—it was part of the local currency of kindness, like Skittles and back rubs.

 

Maryanne, whose father owned boats out of Kelso, kept a supply of Metabolife under her bed and would slip a vitamin-sized pill into the pocket of her friends’ hoodies if she saw them lagging on the slime line or growing emotional. The first night of the season, which stretched from the bell at midnight to noon the next day, she was giving out painters’ dust masks to people who were cold. She handed one to Hannah, who had started shivering around five in the morning. Maryanne helped her put the dusk mask on, tightening it in the back and saying:

“The mask will keep you warm, but the warm air around your mouth will make you sleepy, OK? It’s an even trade.” Hannah nodded, tears of gratitude in her eyes.

When Hannah’s head started dipping after breakfast, Maryanne got sharp, and yanked the mask down to Hannah’s chin.

“If you get dozy, take the mask off!” Hannah nodded doggedly. “Also, don’t eat much at breakfast. If you’re hungry, you’re awake. Fill up on coffee.” She clapped Hannah’s cheek, hard enough to make her understand, gentle enough to get away with it.

As Maryanne moved away, Betty heard her muttering, “That girl has broken taco written all over her.”

 

Betty had worked with Maryanne the year before, and she knew enough to treat her with respect. She knew well enough what “broken taco” meant, and she new how to avoid becoming one: don’t lag, tow the line, don’t quit the cannery before the last sockeye run comes in. Betty wondered why they didn’t just say “pussy.” To be a broken taco was to be the lowest of the low: incompetent and spineless. Maryanne was the head of the roe house this year, working with the skinny Japanese men who wore white boots and smoked cigarettes as they packed boxes of Grade C roe to ship back to the low-end sushi buffets back home. Maryanne would pick only her friends to work in the roe house. It was the best position you could get: the roe house was away from the noise of the machinery in the cannery and the fresh-frozen house and you could play music and take breaks whenever and maybe learn Japanese.

 

In the first few days of the season, when everyone worked in the evening and got twelve hours off to sleep and everyone slept, even, often for ten of the twelve hours, there was a quiet held like an inhaled breath. The days were sodden and gloomy, and the bunkhouses stunk of wet wool and sleep and the sweetness of fish blood. The bunkhouses would grow louder by ten p.m., the sun still glowing behind the clouds, and by midnight everyone, flabby faced with sleep, would troop over to the cannery buildings. One of these first few nights the Child brothers, Zack and J. Child, started working in fresh-frozen, and the season had its first fight and real beginning. The Child brothers were delinquents from Portland: Zack’s face was pleasant, round and ripe with acne, and J. Child was sullen, pointedly handsome. Both of them were already notorious for covering up the smell of fish blood with Axe body spray. Both of them had bought their plane tickets from Portland to Alaska on cannery credit.

 

It was Nusky, the veteran foreman, who assigned the Child brothers to fresh-frozen, stacking fish on pallets and moving them to the freezer. Everyone called Nusky “Leatherneck,” behind his back because his neck was wrinkled and tanned from years on boats. That evening, the Child brothers sauntered in late and Nusky ran up to them and started yelling. Zack, cowed, backed away, but J. Child yelled back at him, calling him, in a voice louder than the machinery, “You leathernecked old bastard.” Nusky stopped talking, grimaced a smile, and patted J. Child on the back. J. Child was wrong to make an enemy out of Nusky, because he put J. Child on duty stacking fish, and J. Child’s carpal tunnel got so bad that the vein started to blacken. Everyone said that he had put things in that vein, though, and no one but Hannah, who later started sleeping with him, held him up as a pitiful martyr. Betty, who decided to cope with her exhaustion through anger, supported J. Child because she decided to hate Nusky.

 

Betty didn’t get to work in the roe house. She was put in the sorting crew, separating the sockeye from the chum and pink salmon. It was lonely, the work started at midnight, and there were only girls for company. Hannah was on the crew, and Hannah’s roommate, and a Polish or Ukrainian girl named Ilsa. There were a lot of internationals this year—the stringy Japanese and then all these Poles or Ukrainians. Some were returning: Jozef, the machine, was a favorite. The sorting crew left for work when everyone else was getting off and going to sleep. Every two hours they got ten minutes with a coffee pot and a selection of white bread and cold cuts—but even the coffee breaks were lonely for the sorting crew. Betty got angry. The fresh-frozen house was colder at night, and echoed.

 

Last season, when she was working in the cannery and was good friends with Maryanne, Betty was a favorite of Nusky and the other foremen who rode around on their bicycles with haughty impunity, regally nodding their heads. Bicycles were for the foremen only, but last season Betty hadn’t known this, and when she had found a bicycle by the incinerator, rusted and dented and missing a saddle, she brought it back to the cannery. She saw Maryanne set her mouth in disapproval, but in the excitement of the moment she continued riding in circles around the dock. She set it down to go in to dinner, and when she came out of the mess hall she saw that someone had thrown it onto the rocks. Every low tide, the bicycle was revealed, hanging with seaweed. This season it was gone, dragged into the bay by some angry winter current. Now, standing at the sorting belt, watching the salmon rolling, squirming or stiff with rigor mortis, it seemed clear that Maryanne had thrown her bicycle off the dock. Maryanne kept her distance from Betty, and kept a close eye on her Metabolife. Sometimes Nusky would ride around late at night to check on the night crews at the sorting belt and the beach gang. He was still pleasant to Betty; he offered her chocolate. That was his bartering tool, his restorative—little fun-size candies he’d produce from his pocket with a flourish.

 

Jozef the machine had already abandoned sleeping. He came up, one night, to the sorting perch, unsteady on his feet, and Hannah asked in a small whisper if he was drunk. His eyes were red, he swatted at the handrail and missed.

“Is he—Is he drunk?”

Jozef lurched. He said nothing about why he was up there. He turned to address the conveyer belt of salmon and spoke in Polish. He had a ring of spittle, dried white, around his mouth. Hannah was watching him with a half-open mouth, backing away.

“He’s not drunk, he’s just sleepy.” They all used the word “sleepy” to describe the various stages of exhaustion, because it sounded cute and chummy. Betty took Jozef’s arm.

“Joe,” she said, and Jozef wheeled: shocked, rocking. “Joe, get some sleep. It’s time for bed.” She helped him down the stairs. He walked in the opposite direction of the bunkhouses.

Back at the sorting belt, Hannah was stock still, glazed with concern.

“He’s fine. He’s just sleepy.”

Betty understood Jozef’s aversion to sleep: without sleep you got the elation, the slamming heart and joy that hammered like a headache, between the troughs of sadness and fear.

 

Hannah got hysterical when she was in the trough, weeping silently. Eyes scanning the moving shadows in her vision, she would ask, “What was that? What was that?” pointing at nothing. When she was happy, she was silly, giggling and recounting the snippets of her dreams. Betty’s trough was anger—she spat and punched at the fish when she sorted them, sometimes pulling the softer ones apart. She engaged with what she saw moving at the edge of her sight, cursing. When she was happy she was also angry, but giddily so. The girls on the sorting crew tried to stay in rhythm, so that no more than one of them was spooked or anguished at a time. At coffee breaks they poured and sugared each other’s coffee. Sometimes there were fights—they liked the fights best if they were between the Ukrainians or Poles, because they could sit and relax and pretend to interpret what they were saying as they hit each other. Hannah sat and rocked gently and giggled, and Betty balled her fists and said: “Yeah! Yeah!”

 

Her real name was Tess, short for Teresa, but she had changed it to Betty. The inspiration for this name change was her boyfriend. Her boyfriend’s name was Carl, but his stage name was Mikey Mnoxide. He was never really onstage; he worked repairing motorcycles, and once, when they talked about their plans, he said that they should start a joint bike-repair shop and beauty parlor so that the Bettys could get their hair done while the Johnnys got their bikes looked after. He said it casually, in his bland Kansas accent, and she decided right then to go to beauty school. Now, to practice, she teased her hair into a bouffant, or a beehive, and drew on her eyes with liquid liner. She combed her boyfriend’s hair back into a ducktail, using egg white to give it that sheen and hold. When she opened her beauty parlor next to the bike shop she would make sure that the only haircuts the Johnnys could get were ducktails and crew cuts. She never called him Carl, but she never got used to calling him Mikey, so she called him “you.” He called her “the little lady.”

Even at the cannery, she did her hair before work. She brought a can of hairspray and a jar of pomade. She told the girls on the crew about her boyfriend; she called him “my boyfriend.” She brought a tape deck, and a collection of tapes, all doo-wop. When she was in a trough another girl, usually Hannah, would play “My Boyfriend’s Back” to cheer her up. When Hannah was acting spooky, Betty played her “The Leader of the Pack.” After work some days, they would sit and listen to the tape deck in Betty’s room. Their personalities changed at each song, and grew wistful during the love songs and hard, almost manic, when the music was raunchy. They always skipped “Last Kiss,” because it was about death and made the shadows in the corners of the room flutter with ghostly portents.

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One Response to The Chinese Barracks

  1. Pingback: Links: Zyzzyva, The State of the Short Story, What Haunts Us | Carmen Maria Machado

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