Sawdust in the Fishery

The following story was originally published by Oyez Review in March 2020. 

“Your father always made a lot of money,” Mother says, “but the job he was most proud of was the first. He came from nothing, he said — remember how he loved saying so — but started working certain seasons at a fishery in Alaska, eventually managing work flows and overseeing plant efficiency. And then there was that story, remember. The conveyor belt operator had realized it was most efficient to start the belt slowly, establishing a comfortable gutting rhythm that all of his workers could manage. Gradually, the operator would accelerate the conveyor belt; guys would be so absorbed in their work, they wouldn’t notice the incremental increase of speed, slicing open fish bellies to remove their guts, faster and faster, leaving meat for canning on the belt and tossing the remainder on the floor, where it was soaked up by salt and sawdust.

“Your father was the plant manager at the time.”

“Yes.” Kitty knows this story already.

“As a joke, he sometimes stopped the conveyor belt when passing through the floor. The workers had so acclimated to the speed of their labor, the belt’s sudden stop made them fall over. Like little toys. Into the sludge on the floor. How is it that your father had such a nice laugh, even about mean things? He said everyone laughed about it.

“I admired your father, originally. He was successful, impressive, well-dressed, eager to move to a city. He made a show of opening doors.” Honestly, Mother always enjoyed watching him manipulate others. “He always knew how to get the better of someone, insult, flattery, or self-aggrandizement. I assumed I was the exception to his unkindness. It made me feel remarkable and it’s a grave miscalculation that has preoccupied me the rest of my life. Everybody wants to be the exception, and so you accept the brutalization of everybody else.”