It was a job. It paid slightly above minimum wage and provided no other benefits. Its primary advantage, if you can call it that, was that it required no thought, no active personal involvement or commitment other than the repetitive physical movements that Calvin had mastered in the first hour of employment. There was also minimal opportunity for interactions with any of his co-workers, not even with the woman who stood across from him at the end of the line. He provided her with large aluminum trays with inch-high edge rims, sort of like oversize baking sheets. She loaded each tray with four rows of seven small wrapped boxes of Brussels sprouts as they came off the line of rollers eight inches above the tray. When each tray was full he would move it to a slot on a seven-foot high metal rack and grab an empty tray from the same rack. By the time he got the new tray in place, something he thought took between three and four seconds, the woman already had the next row of boxes ready to drop into place, and the next rows after that were already queuing up on the narrow roller conveyor coming down from the packing operators. He would continue loading the trays into the rack until it was full, at which point a new rack of empty trays would appear and the full rack would be rolled away. It had to be that way. The line of sprouts-filled boxes wasn’t going to slow down or stop and there always had to be another empty tray and a place for the filled tray to go, and the filled rack had to be taken away into the freezer. This was the end of the production line and there was no other place for the boxes to go, except for spilling off the end onto the floor. Calvin had to concentrate on that. He never had a chance to look at the workers who packed the boxes a few feet up the line to his right nor the ones who rolled the racks into place behind him; his eyes were always on the trays, only the trays, his attention on getting everything in its place with no delay. There was simply no time to look around.
That didn’t mean that Cal didn’t know what else went on in the cannery, or the freezery, if you wanted to be accurate. All of their output was frozen, never canned. He had scanned the layout during his lunch breaks. The building itself was a cavernous metal box covering a massive gray concrete slab. Somewhere out in the field Brussels sprouts had been cut off their stalks and loaded into large cardboard bins. At one end of the cannery building those bins were dumped out and the contents funneled onto a narrow white conveyer belt passing between two rows of women whose job it was to repeatedly hold individual sprouts up against rapidly spinning blades that trimmed off the remains of the stalks and the outer leaves. That was the one really dangerous job because the women had to move quickly to keep up with the flow, and the blades were kept very sharp; on occasion a finger or two ended up where they weren’t supposed to be.
After trimming, the sprouts dropped into a chute filled with hot chlorinated water that rinsed and blanched them as they floated over to another conveyor belt that took them between two long rows of women who, again very rapidly, loaded them into small wax-coated boxes on scales that made sure each box held at least 12 ounces. The women then closed the boxes and added them to another conveyor in the unending train down to the end of the line, where they slid off the belt onto a narrow roller shelf leading down to where Cal and his partner waited with the endless trays and the rolling freezer racks. At the season’s high point the line would run eleven hours each day, six days a week, only shutting down for scheduled breaks and a half-hour lunch.
After hours of repetitive unrelenting monotony and the continuous background din, Cal went out into the quiet night to walk the half-mile back to his small apartment, an upstairs room in an eighty-year-old victorian residence that had been subdivided into five units. There he removed the clothes that reeked of the distinctive odor of cooked sprouts, clothes that he could hang up outside his window if it he didn’t expect rain or high winds. He could wear them again the next day after they aired out. He threw together whatever he had available in his small refrigerator, gulped down the resulting meal, and collapsed into bed. There wasn’t much time for anything else. A few months of that schedule and he was ready for the only other benefit of the job; it was seasonal. There were three months of Brussels sprouts in the fall and three months of spinach in the spring, with two blocks of unemployment pay separating the two. It was like a paid summer vacation twice a year, a break that was needed if the workers were to recuperate from the trials of each season.
It was a job. And he had kept at it for two years after it was the only thing he could find following graduation from high school. There weren’t many other job opportunities in his small town, and in his first few months, while still living at his parents home, he had barely managed to build up enough money to put down the security deposit and first month’s rent for his apartment, as minimal as it was. Never mind any kind of personal transportation; maybe he could afford a scooter, eventually. In many evenings, especially on weekends, his sleep suffered because of the late night noise from his neighbors, all of them apparently young workers with more ordinary weekly schedules. He hoped that an unblemished work record at the cannery would help him get a better position somewhere else, but it seemed that cannery work was not the kind of experience that other employers were looking for; he had kept looking, but hadn’t received any positive responses. Perhaps, he began to believe, he was stuck.
It was during the next spinach season that he found himself walking away from the cannery next to a couple of women from the trimming line, Cassie and Helen. Slightly older than him, they had been working there for four years. They invited him over for dinner, where he discovered that they had few more possessions than he did. Their only advantage was that their ability to share the rent allowed them to have a more spacious apartment, but it was obvious that their combined incomes didn’t go much further than his. There were a few other differences he noted during their dinner. One was that even though the meal was a relatively simple stew, their cooking skills were well beyond his own. The meal was delicious. But their discussion was also notable in one aspect; every time he brought up a complaint about the cannery and the type of work they were involved in, the women would shrug and change the subject. When he expressed the worry that he would still be struggling in the cannery forty years later, as an old man, Cassie just laughed and said, “You don’t have to worry about that, believe me.” The two were much more interested in talking about current events in the world outside of their small town. In all of this they were unfailingly positive.
It was several months later, at the beginning of the summer break, that the reasons for their optimism, or their casual acceptance of the world as it existed, began to come to the surface. The two never mentioned any of that themselves, but one morning they did invite Calvin to a brunch in the dining hall at the 4th Street Baptist Church, a meeting that would include about sixteen people who worked at the cannery along with their friends and families. It would be the first time he would be in a church since he had moved out of his parents’ house, but Cassie told him it was just a gathering of friends, not anything religious, so he decided to go. But at his table there were eight people, including Cassie and Helen, and four of them actively began a discussion about middle eastern crises and the recent movement of the United States embassy to Jerusalem and the continuing expansion of Jewish settlements there and on the West Bank. As Calvin listened he realized that they were enthused by these events, or perhaps not by these events themselves but by what they might imply for the near future. The others at his table were not actively contributing to the speculation, but they were clearly interested.
The event ended a bit after one o’clock and Cal found himself walking back to their apartments with Cassie and Helen again, a trip that began with none of them talking. A few blocks into the route Helen broke the silence. “You know, Cal, now and then it’s seemed to us like you’ve been disappointed when you complained about working at the cannery and we didn’t react the way you wanted … I mean, we didn’t do anything to encourage your negative comments or agree or disagree, or anything like that. Maybe now you’ll see why.”
Cal didn’t, but he wasn’t sure how to phrase his lack of understanding, how to get the two to express what they clearly had thoroughly incorporated into their view of the world. Something, obviously, allowed them to ignore all of the negative aspects in their lives and their lack of future options. He shook his head and said, “I’m not sure.”
Helen stopped walking and smiled. “Don’t you see? The signs, what they were talking about at our table, they’re all around us. We don’t know exactly when, but the world is building toward Armageddon. The end is on its way. The end of everything. Everything that’s happening right now is almost meaningless, it won’t last more than a couple more years. Don’t worry about any of this … this transitory stuff.” She waved her arms outward as if to dismiss the entire world. “It doesn’t mean anything, none of it. It’ll all be taken care of.”