Thursday, February 28, 2008

Friday Snippets 33

I'm scraping the bottom now. I've only got a few more and, like this one, they are either from waaaaaay back when my skills were much rougher or from the raw dough of the NaNo and Sven rough drafts which are more rough than draft. This was written in my late twenties while I was working in the pear packing sheds here in the Rogue Valley. I can't remember if it was written during a fruit season before or after I started college in January of 85 so I was between 25 and 27.

The story I set out to tell is still vivid in my head as is the Reggie character which is why I wrote a flash-fiction piece for an online contest about a year ago featuring Reggie and a character from my Fruit of the Spirit story world. I will probably post that piece next week. I don't think I've ever posted it on Friday Snippets.

One of the main flaws I see in this snippet is the amount if info-dump re both Reggie's history and the description of her job. I would appreciate hear your take as readers on that. At the end of the snippet I added some photos depicting the working conditions described here and a bit of the history of the story's origins. I didn't put that at the top because I wanted to ask you to compare my descriptions with the photos and your own comprehension of my description before and after it is aided with the photos. Does that make sense?

Making Determinations
By Joy Renee

"Starting another box?" Jan asked when Reggie reached for an empty box as she slid her finished one onto the rollers. "I’m sure not. I hate to have to finish one after they shut down the machines."

Reggie glance up at the clock, one hand still reaching for an empty carton on the rack over her head. Three minutes. "I can do it." she said. Slamming the box onto her horse and wheeling it up against the rotating bin, she reached for the first pear with her right hand, the wrapping paper with her left. After the hundred and thirty odd boxes she had packed today the motions had become like extensions of her body, taking on an intrinsic rhythm.

Sometimes at home she caught herself going through the motions with odd items--her sons baseball while watching television, a can of tuna while talking on the phone in the kitchen. It resembled nothing so much as a loner’s game of catch. Toss. Slap. Twist. Drop. The pears made a hollow thump as the staggered rows of the first of five layers went together. The knowledge of what size pear to pick up, of how many pears to put in each layer so that the count came out right and the weight was always within a five pound window--that knowledge had been absorbed by Reggie’s body in the same way the sweat had been absorbed by the red bandana twisted into a rope and tied around her forehead.

The late summer heat was unrelenting. There had been no relief from it throughout the day inside the shed. The high-ceilinged, barn-like building, constructed of cinder-blocks and corrugated aluminum sheets absorbed the sun’s radiated heat and oven-like, entrapped it. The only air circulation, provided by the great loading-dock doors, offered scant consolation; as the occasional breeze which blew through was gravid with diesel fumes from the trucks loading and unloading outside and the hysters scuttling about their various chores inside. Rivulets of sweat ran down Reggie’s back and pooled in the region of her tail-bone, leaving a trail of dark moisture-laden blotches on her shirt. The waist band of her jeans too had turned dark with the sweat it had absorbed, the darker color continuing below the band in a half-moon shape nearly the size of her palm.

Many of the girls had worn shorts as a token of respect for the heat. But Reggie was convinced that shorts would reveal the extra weight she had gained during the off-season months when there hadn’t been work to keep her active. Jan, the woman she worked next to had assured her
"Not even a string bikini would reveal anything on you that shouldn’t be there. How much do you weigh anyway?"

"One-fifteen." Reggie had said through gritted teeth.

"I should weigh so much!" Jan had said with arched brows.

But Reggie would not be persuaded otherwise nor could she be persuaded to abandon her plan to fast the ‘extra’ five pounds off. Well, not quite fasting. She allowed herself one, small non-fat meal per day--lunch, now four hours past. Her stomach signaled insistently and she anticipated a difficult time resisting the urge to lick the spoons while fixing her kid’s dinner tonight. But she would. Because she was determined to lose those five pounds by the week-end.

"Why by the week-end?" Jan had asked. "Gotta date or something?"

"No. No reason. Just because." Just because she had decided. And when Reggie decided something it got done. As would this even if it brought on one of her ulcer attacks.

Reggie had been fending for herself and her two kids for better than half of her thirty-three years and she had discovered that the only way anything got done in this world was by sheer determination. At fifteen she had determined not to get married just because she was pregnant. She had determined to care for her son, Jay, alone and so had moved out of her parents home. But when Jay was a year old she had determined to marry his father, Jake, so they could get off welfare. Never again she had determined would her family go on welfare. Nor had they. And when, a year later, Jay’s sister Rae was born Reggie had determined that her kids would have a better life than she had. All her actions since then had been directed towards that end.

When Jake had turned out to be unable, or unwilling to keep a steady job, Reggie had determined to get work herself. Seasonal work seemed to be all that was available so seasonal work it was. Sorting seedlings at a tree-farm in the winter along with pear-packing in the fall gave her six months of steady work. The other six months she drew un-employment and occasionally babysat and cleaned houses for neighbors. In this way she paid the bills, including payments on a car and a house.

A house! Of her own. Something even her parents had never had. But Reggie had been determined. When Jake had begun to take her steady income for granted and had stopped looking for work himself and began to bum around the beer halls drinking up what money he did earn from odd jobs, she had kicked him out. But he came back and she let him because for once she wasn’t determined. Until a year ago when she had found the determination to serve him with divorce papers. It had taken many years to find that determination. Years that had been a roller-coaster ride of alternating hope and disappointment.

"Why?" Jake had pleaded with a hint of tears in his voice. "I’ll get a job. I promise. I’ll stop drinking. Anything just…"

"No. Jake." she had cut him off firmly. "This time I’m determined."

Reggie was oblivious to the quitting time commotion going on about her. Packers up and down the lines were stopping work but a raging cataract of pears continued to flow into the bins. Bin sorters ran frantically from bin to bin pushing the pears into mounds in the middle. In spite of their efforts many of the pears were lost over the side. Once they hit the floor they were good only for the winery.

"Boy, oh boy! Do they look pissed up on mount Olympus." Jan said throwing her head toward the catwalk where the supervisors stood glowering.

"Well it serves em right." Carla answered. "I sat on my duff for two hours today. Fifteen bucks that cost me. Let em fire me if they dare. But I’m not staying one second past five. I won’t give em the time it takes to take off my gloves." With that she pushed her way past the idle packers, shoving an unmanned horse out of her way.

"Sometime I wish I had the guts to do sumpin like that.." Sophe said. "But I gotta pick up my kids at daycare and ifn I don’ get there by five-thirty it cost me an extry buck each. I jus made enough today to cover the sitter as it is. Three hours they run that fruit so slow half of us we can’t work. Now they flooding us jus at quitin time. Makes no amount of sense, it don’t."


This photo shows the round spinning tub and the packer's 'horse' mentioned in the story. It isn't that good a view of the horse but it was the only one I found after two hours searching. The horse is a wheeled stand with an angled tray for the box that can be tilted forward to slide the full box onto the rollers that convey it to the weigh station. The small tray of chemically treated tissue paper juts out to the side of the box, situated so the packer can snag a sheet from under the needle holding the stack down with her left hand with the help of a rubber thimble on her finger while picking up a pear from the tub with her right hand. The trick of the transfer is to be forceful enough to acquire the speed that insures a better than mediocre paycheck but gentle enough to avoid bruising the pear. As a packer in the 1980's, I got a base hourly wage of $4 something and for that was required to produce a certain number of boxes in an eight hour day to keep the job (I remember it being 60 odd) but every box over that minimum was an extra 30 some cents.
I 'borrowed' the above photo out of the archives of our local paper and my conscience may not allow me to leave this up for more than a week. I'm not sure the exact protocols of such borrowing when you are in too much of a hurry to ask permission first. But here is the link to the Medford Mail Tribune 1997 article which contains the bylines of the article author and the photographer. The article is interesting in its own right as it provides info about the pay rates packers were getting at the time--twelve years after my last packing season the hourly wage and per box rates had inched up but the required minimum had increased by nearly a third. That job was the origin of the wrist and elbow joint problems that excessive typing can inflame to this day. Probably carpo tunnel but it was never officially diagnosed.

OK, I delved a little deeper into the Mail Tribune archives. Here is a link to a better picture, in color and with better views of the horses and a more realistic view of the working conditions.

That was the environment in which I conceived this story and penciled the first drafts of this scene during breaks. I didn't socialize much being so excruciatingly shy. I spent most breaks (as I once did recesses) sitting on the floor with a book or notebook. But it was one of the ladies working in line next to me who knocked on my apartment door a week or so after season was over and said she was driving up to Ashland to turn in her financial aid paperwork and wondered if I would like a ride so I could talk to the financial aid officer. And that was how I ended up going back to school in January 1985. Thank you Mary wherever you are. Your kind gesture launched my life onto trajectories I couldn't even imagine at the time--even though I never finished my degree.

2 tell me a story:

IanT 2/29/2008 4:55 AM  

You can tell - from the prose - that it was something you actually did. I'd got that before I hit your explanation at the bottom.

Not for nothing do people say 'write what you know'.

(Which is a problem for sci-fi and fantasy authors. :-) )

Anonymous,  3/02/2008 4:36 PM  

Yeah, I'm with Ian. I just knew you'd done that job yourself before I read your explanation at the bottom. A salutory lesson for the rest of us-- it's difficult to fake that kind of knowledge, and difficult to hide familiarity with a subject.

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