by L.L. Madrid
Slice, grab, rip, pass. Again and again, all day long. When I first started here they told me you get used to the smell. You don’t, it follows you, clinging like a shadow. Slice, grab, rip, pass. I use my forearm to mop the sweat beading along my hairnet. Hillary Kitts slides over a salmon still speckled with scales. I slap it back in her hand. She’s worked here long enough, she doesn’t have an excuse. Scaling is for newbies. Three months in and Hillary hasn’t mastered the easiest part of the line.
I can gut a fish in less than twenty seconds. Slice, grab, rip, pass. Too bad they don’t offer scholarships for the embalming arts. I don’t lead a charmed life. I got no father and Ma quit parenting long before I learned to tie my shoes. Those are just facts. I don’t complain.
I pretend working at Felix Family Fish is only a summer job. It started out that way, two years ago, right after I graduated. I wanted to go to college but there wasn’t any money. Besides, dreams are for rich people. Still I wish my reality didn’t reek of dead fish. With any luck, I’ll have Fat Old Martha’s job when diabetes claims the rest of her toes. She’s the floor manager and its big money. You hardly qualify for food stamps when you’re the floor manager. Slice, grab, rip, pass. The slowest ticking clock in the world shows fifteen minutes until my next smoke break.
Nicky Felix, the boss’s son, swaggers in three hours late looking like he’s been up for days. He’s pre-law at the fancy university, but spending the summer looking after the family biz while boss-pop boozes and cruises. Fat Old Martha is always muttering that Nicky makes more money in three months doing nada than she does all year bustin’ her butt. She says she wouldn’t care, but she’s got kids and everyone knows all that money goes right up boss-boy’s nose.
Sounds like fish town gossip, but my gal Shanna confirmed it. She caught Nicky snorting a line off his daddy’s desk. He bought her silence with a wad of cash from the business safe that he pretends is his piggy bank. Nicky’s dim if he thinks his habits are a secret. He’s waltzed out of that office more than a few times looking like he had a powdered sugar mishap.
Slice. Eight more minutes. Grab. I feel something pressing against the back pocket of my jeans. Squeezing by, Shanna lifts her brows; her eyes are wide, wild. Rip. I toss the guts into the bin, wipe my hand on my apron and feel my pocket. Shanna’s Zippo. Pass. I look up, now across the room, Shanna is staring at me to see if I’ve understood. I nod. The signal. How many times have we sat on her porch, drinking her momma’s tequila, plotting? Sixteen, seventeen times? Still, I never thought we’d actually do it. Shanna’s wearing a nervous grin, eyes darting toward the kitchen.
Hillary “ahems” and points at two scaled fish waiting at my station, I pick one up and dig my blade into its belly. My hands are shaking and the knife is sharp enough I don’t feel the steel open up the glove and my skin. I slashed my finger, never done that before. It fits nicely into the plan, though. “Band-aid,” I say, holding up my bloody finger. As I walk away, the fire alarm shrieks and sprinklers erupt, blasting the warehouse. Fat Old Martha pulls herself from her overworked chair and hollers. Smoke billows out of the kitchen, licks of flames follow suit.
Shanna does good work.
While our coworkers push through the double doors out into the parking lot, I meet Shanna in the office. Nicky’s nose frantically lines the desk as he tries to snort runny coke. He doesn’t notice when I dump the trash from the can and start to fill its liner with money from the open safe. Shanna bumps into his chair as she removes the security tape and from the VCR. He looks up, white snot dripping down his chin. He stares at Shanna, and then at me. His face scrunches like he’s trying figure a word problem involving the speeds of trains.
“What are you doing?” he asks.
“Robbing ya.” Shanna snaps her gum and grabs a bottle of Jack from under the desk. “But that’s not what you’re gonna say.”
“I know about Madison Yaude.” Slice. I twirl the plastic bag. The weight thrills me. I don’t mind my bleeding finger or the sprinklers. “Got pictures too, pretty damning considering she’s fifteen.”
Nicky’s face hangs like a dog left out in the rain. “Christ.”
“Oh, he don’t care.” Shanna laughs, head back like she’s flirting for a free drink at the bar, not committing a felony.
I heft the sack over my shoulder. Grab. “You tell the cops one of your dealers got a little disgruntled. Me and Shanna, well, we were so upset we quit. Understand?”
Nicky starts to cry. Rip.
“I’ll take that as a yes.”
We leave from the back, hop into Shanna’s Toyota, and start driving. Pass. We’re heading to Kansas. Middle of the country. Gotta get away from that damn fish smell.