" I just can't slice them open when they're looking at me like that!"
Charlene is literally wailing as she backs away, her face red with agitation, shame and crying. I don't remember ever seeing her like this, although I haven't been in this job all that long, so my frame of reference isn't exactly great. Charlene is a short, sturdy barrel of a woman with huge hands and feet and that yellow blond hair that looks like it's fake but it's really hers. She ties it back in a tight bun, all the while sobbing and heaving and cursing.
" I know you can do this" she says to me, "I've heard about where you're from. You do this kind of stuff all the time."
I gaze at her, relieved that she seems calmer now that she's got some distance between her and the task at hand that is totally freaking her out.
" I can't just walk off the floor, Charlene," I say "Someone will have to cover my section and everyone gets so pissed off about any special requests."
"I'll take care of that" she says, " don't fucking move!"
I'm a Newfoundlander, and so I appreciate the creative use of that word as a part of speech other than a verb... or a noun. I'm not going to move.
I lean against the counter's edge, unguarded; everything here in Charlene's space is spotless and sanitized and I like that, given what we do here all day. Charlene moves past me with the heat and energy of a blast furnace, her speed and agility impressive in one so .... robust. Charlene is never in the public eye, her work always done behind the scenes in relative anonymity, which she pretty much demands, so when she makes an appearance "out front," all drama and dash, her white-coat flapping with splendor and glory, the higher ups take notice. I wait for the word from on high, remorselessly drawn into reverie...
never take a job you're not willing to walk away from... so said one of my early mentors. Yes, verily say, I, but have a plan B for all the times when the ideological walkaways are paths to no money or visible prospects. I am pretty good at what I do and I get well paid to do it, when that is what I am actually doing. I've done the walkaway, though, enough that I've developed a string of jobs that can save me in a pinch. I've taught ballroom dance, swimming, fitness classes; I can coach gymnastics and teach guitar, and I'm handy at bar and restaurant work, although in my present incarnation, that kind of work is more risky than it used to be. Regardless... there's no work I won't do, though there's definitely some I'd prefer over others. Anyway, that's how I met Charlene, on one of these " others."
and it's Charlene's roaring at her superiors that brings me back to my here and now; and she's really giving them the gears: " when do I ever get a speck of assistance back here (blah, blah blah, curse, curse) when do I ever ask for anyone to give me a hand with all the shit work I do that no-one else wants to do (curse, curse, blah, blah, blah) all I'm saying is that she can do this and all it's gonna take is for someone to take over her goddamn section for a goddamn hour... and this thing is not going to happen if I have to touch one of those things while it's looking at me, not going to happen, gentlemen, I will walk I swear I will..."
then it gets quiet and I know she will get her way. No one here wants to lose Charlene. I re-organize my utensils and get my gloves ready. I catch the eye of one of my younger colleagues as she swings through the door and lays out her flat hand to me. Ok, she says, hand them over. I 've got your section for an hour. She looks at me ruefully, I guess you have to go and, well, you know...
fine, fine, I say, pulling the edges of my gloves up over my wrists. Charlene blasts back into the huge, gleaming room. She glares at my colleague. You, she says, out!
and you ( that's me, now ) get over here.
Charlene points to the tray filled with a substance that looks like sheep's brains with bits of garnish thrown in. Is that parsley, I ask her, well aware of all the jokes about how things sometimes look back here. Yes, it's parsley, Charlene says, and I put in a bit of turmeric and lemon pepper as well. Smells nice, don't you think? She smiles at me. I am not sure what to do, or say, or how to respond to this information. You never know when she is messing with you or when she is serious. It does, I agree. What the hell. Live dangerously.
Well, OK then. Here 's the blade. One swift cut , neck to tail... tail, you gotta love her sense of metaphor.... and then split the little sucker open and fill it up with that dressing.
Should I do all the cutting first and then all the stuffing? I ask her, sincerely.
Charlene has that look like she is going to explode or fall against the wall crying. Whatever is faster, she says. So I get to it. I have done this kind of thing before and there is nothing creepy about it. I move with a quiet efficiency and Charlene watches from a respectable distance. I can see her reflection in the shiny, stainless steel doors over my head. I smooth the slick skin together and line the trout up on the baking trays. Today's special, baked stuffed lake trout, saved by acts of boldness and compassion.
I smile at Charlene. How often will this be the special, I ask her.
Just once a season, she says. She pauses, How long are you planning on hanging around here?
I shrug. As long as I need, I suppose.
Well, I don't care.... this one is done. I just hate it when they look at me, she says, again.
They're dead, Charlene, I say. She and I are quiet. She looks over at the impressive array of trays of little stuffed trout corpses. She looks over at me. We look at the clock. 20 minutes left.
I raise an eyebrow and tilt my head toward the oven. She nods. I load. We wait.
She's right; it does smell nice.