Maybe because I’m bored, I agree to see Barry’s fish tank. I’d just returned from three months in Europe where travelling with a circus through France or catching live octopus to grill for lunch while house-sitting on a Spanish island was just how some weeks played out.
I was back in Waynesville now, broke, regretting I’d come back too late to start the autumn term at the state university. The main attraction in Waynesville was the Walmart Super Center, which had never been that super. My dad knew somebody who knew somebody who could get me on at the cake-mix factory. It was the best menial pay going—a solid $5 an hour. It sounded easier than waitressing, and McDonalds was for teenagers. Assembly work would be dull, but I’d had my adventure. I’d do a bit of time then move on. Maybe find a little distraction or two to pass that time. There’d be no harm in that.
We go for breakfast first. It’s like going to dinner since me and Barry work the graveyard shift, eleven to seven. The days are shorter now, and as we leave the factory, there’s a hint of light in the sky. I feel my exhaustion fade as I step into the freshness of early-morning air. Barry says being awake before the birds makes him feel wise. We’ll eat in our uniform whites but remove our hairnets and dust off the fine white powder that covers us as best we can.
For the first three months I work the gentle macaroni line with mothers of classmates who puff up proud talking about their children and grandchildren as Kraft boxes and cheese packets trundled along. I join in, talking maybe a bit too loud about the French hairdresser boyfriend I’d had and tales of circus life where the troupe’s trumpeter lost his tongue by standing too close to a monkey. Then I get moved upstairs to a fast line.
I find myself standing elbow-to-elbow with sturdy stone-faced women who look like they’ve worked assembly lines for centuries—even the ones only a few years older than me. Their eyes and faces seem dead, but their hands are so alive. I’m transfixed by the way they flit like birds as we stuff plastic pouches of cake mix, muffin mix, and brownie mix into cardboard boxes that race by. All the women snap-to when the shouty little foreman appears. I keep my head down and hands moving, but he always stops near me. He stares at my hands, then shakes his head. I try and stuff like the others, but I miss boxes, a lot of boxes, making the women swoop in to stuff them. Sometimes I miss so many boxes the shouty little foreman stops the line during the three-hour run. If too many boxes are missed, we lose our fifteen-minute break.
Breaks are crucial. That’s when everyone flies off to pee, then smoke, flocking back together to chatter. But I don’t smoke and try not to drink anything before a shift. I stand apart and pretend not to notice how they tilt their heads or point their chins in my direction, stare at me with tough-guy eyes. I listen to them squawk about drunken honky-tonk escapades and how they lost their bras in barroom brawls. They’d probably roll their eyes hearing about all-night Italian beach raves and sunbathing topless. Doubt they’d care about cocktail recipes unless I left out the fruit. But it doesn’t matter—I’m here for only eight more months. So what if they don’t invite me to their lunch table or show me pictures of their babies and toddlers, friends’ bachelorette parties or pets.
A book is my lunch company, and I do my best to ignore the cackles that carry as they gossip, discuss TV shows I don’t watch, and grouch they’ll be stuck at home this weekend as they can’t ditch their kids with their parents. Sometimes a single shift feels like eight months.
At least Big Bertha tolerates me, giving me technique tips and stuffing most of my missed boxes without comment. But it’s hard working next to her. She smells bad and sucks soft caramels non-stop, popping them into her mouth even while working the line. Her teeth are grey stubs swimming in gooey muck, making her words stick and slur into a pool of mumble. When I look at her mouth, I feel sick.
At some point I notice Barry, the foreman of the pancake line. See how he laughs and jokes with his ladies throughout their shift, giving them little lingering pats on their backs or their arms or hips to celebrate the fact they have the most productive line. And he notices me, coming over one lunchtime to sit down and chat. We discover he went to school with my older cousins, and he asks me about the book I’m reading. Before long, I’m tell him my plans for college. How I’m living at home and working here because I’m going away next fall. He nods and tells me about the philosophy books he’s reading, how he’s always been interested in enlightenment. Adds he has a fish tank I really should see sometime.
We go to a family-run bakery for breakfast. We don’t want anything from a box. The smell of fresh bread, donuts, and coffee surrounds us and reminds me of my grandma’s kitchen. Breakfast with Barry is good. Even great. He’s funny, got things to say. He thinks it’s super I’m working to finance my studies. Says education is important, the key to enlightenment. In a lower voice he says he’ll try to get me on his line, but it’s complicated. It feels like Barry could be a friend, an ally, a mentor. That makes me smile, go a bit fluttery. There’s a white smudge on his cheek I hope he doesn’t wipe away. Barry tells me he once had an offer to go to college.
“But I got side-tracked. Don’t get side-tracked,” he says, shaking a finger at me.
Then he goes quiet and stares at his donut. Starts telling me about his ex-wife, how he’s on decent terms with her now. Has weekends with the kids sorted. Working different shifts helps. He perks back up after a bit. He wants to show me his trailer and some new furniture he’s bought.
“And the fish tank,” I say.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, the fish tank. And maybe we’ll watch a movie.”
But there’s no fish tank and the sofa sags in the middle. I can’t see a single book anywhere. I perch on one end of the sofa and watch as Barry makes us drinks even though it’s only 9 a.m. He says his Bloody Mary is a killer. I shake my head, but he hands me a glass anyway. He goes off to change and comes back wearing jeans and a red plaid shirt. He’s put on cologne, too. A lot. Something that smells like kerosene. The smudge has disappeared, and I hardly recognize him now. He says I can change if I want, but I haven’t brought any other clothes. I say I need to go, that I have to take my mom to her doctor’s appointment. Barry punches a button on the remote and the TV pops on.
“But we were gonna watch a movie,” he says. His voice has risen to an unmistakable whine. “I’ve got one I think you’ll like.”
And before I can say anything else, he presses another button for the VCR and a porno begins to play.
Barry’s got one of those old box TVs with photos of his kids on top. Two big 8×10 prints from a studio, with the kids dressed up in front of a bland blue backdrop. His boy is maybe four with a wide smile, cute and blond. His red cowboy boots are planted firmly, and his hat sits at a jaunty angle as he takes aim at the camera with a toy gun. In the other photo is his girl. She’s a little older, another blonde, with pink bows and matching Mary Janes. She’s perched on the edge of her chair, ready to bolt, with a ragdoll she holds tight. Her head is cocked, like she’s listening, her little face full of doubt. Maybe she’s been promised a fish tank too.
I concentrate on the photos, ignore the tangle of limbs and sounds coming from the TV. Barry’s advice floats back to me. I see how it happened. The repercussions that followed. How it could happen again. I take a deep breath.
“Nice kids,” I say.
Go on about how sweet they look, how I bet they enjoy spending time with their dad. That he must be super proud of them. I keep talking ‘til he switches off the TV.
“Well,” I say, standing up. “It’s been enlightening.” Then I go.
On the way home, I stop at Walmart. I’ve heard Vicks VapoRub under the nose works wonders. Peruse the hard candy aisle and buy a bag of sugar-free peppermints. I’ll tell Bertha they’re a thank you, that they were out of soft caramels. I grab a few of those glossy TV rag-mags I’ve only ever sniffed at. Tell myself to consider it research. That I should apply myself, make friends with the line. Maybe even offer to babysit. Enlightenment is everywhere. So are harmful little distractions.