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art by Billy Sagulo

Lucky Cherry Luck

Kailyn lives and writes in Akiachak, Alaska. She's applying for her MFA in Fiction, and has previously been published in The Believer, The Rumpus, The Healing Muse, Tahoe Blues, and BlazeVOX. Her ideal literary lunch dates include Joan Didion, Margaret Atwood, Tim Winton, and Kurt Vonnegut. She prefers a natural leaven.
The cannery above waist level was spotless. Stainless steel countertops shone under the fluorescents and machines hummed with an oiled speed. Jolene was lucky to work at such a fine cannery. She told herself that, when she arrived each evening and again each morning when she left.
One two three, she flicked a rubber-gloved hand across the open cans, one two three, and counted the cherries as they dropped. Before her on the line was the pineapple girl, and before her the melon girl, and before her the girl who scooped shrunken orange slices. Jolene didn't know anyone but the pineapple girl, who sometimes sat with her on breaks. They were all given complimentary cans of fruit cocktail, although most of them went outside to smoke instead of eating.
One two three, she counted, and glanced up at the large black clock on the wall. Half an hour until break, the last of the day.
The floor was sticky and flecked with bits of fruit, and she heard the sucking sounds of rubber shoes as someone walked up behind her. She did not need to look up to know it was Emmanuel.
"Everything all right, Jo?" he asked.
"Yes Sir," she said.
She saw him in her periphery, nodding and writing on his clipboard. He moved on to the quality control girl, who inspected each can to make sure there were no anomalies. Beyond her the cans were capped and sealed. At each point he paused and jotted down more notes on his clipboard. He had never, that Jolene could remember, not taken notes on his floor visit. She had never seen the notes and did not know what they said.
He disappeared through the hanging rubber slats and into the distribution and boxing center.
She looked at the second hand on the clock. It was ten past the minute. She had twenty seconds until Emmanuel came back to check the next conveyor line. He would check all four conveyors before returning to his second-floor office to watch them out the window.
A can passed, and she readied herself. The next one. It would be the next one.
It clicked into place. She flicked, one two three, cherries. She took a deep breath, and before the can moved down the line, pushed a fourth cherry into the cocktail. She let the breath out between o-shaped lips, directing it across the top of the can. It came from somewhere beneath her lungs, was made of something more than just exhaled air. The fourth cherry pulsed a deep red, the color it had been before it was bleached, soaked in sugar, and dyed. It turned candy red again after a moment, and the can clicked away down the line.
She thought this as she blew across the extra cherry: may you find luck, may you find safety, may the better desires of your heart come readily true.
Most of the time, the quality control girl caught them, and would dig them out with her rubber fingers and flick them into the trash. More than once they had gotten through, although Jolene knew it took more than that. The cherries had to find the right people, had to make their way to the mouths of someone who wanted what they promised, really wanted it. It was rare enough these days, someone with genuine desire for that kind of happiness, even without the odds of them eating one of her cans.
Once again before the break and once after Jolene managed to get a lucky cherry into the top of a cocktail. As far as she could tell, all three made it past the quality-control girl. She smiled the whole bus ride home.
Two weeks passed, and that Friday marked Jolene's first year at the cannery. They had a small celebration on the half-hour break, between three thirty and four in the morning. There was a cheap, store-bought cake with neon icing that said "Congratulations Graduate" across the top. Emmanuel explained that they had gotten it practically free from the bakery down the road.
Most of the women hung around to eat cake, and afterwards went out the loading dock door to suck smoke over sugarcoated teeth. Jolene and the pineapple girl sat at their table. The pineapple girl drank thin looking coffee from a Styrofoam cup. Jolene ate a sandwich. Ten minutes before the break was over, a new girl walked in with Emmanuel.
"Ladies, this is the new quality control for your line."
"Piper," the girl said.
"Piper, yes," Emmanuel said.
"What happened to Margaret?" The pineapple girl asked, and it occurred to Jolene that she didn't know anyone's name. Except Piper's, now.
"She was let go. Three cans overloaded in one shift. We wish her the best." Emmanuel said, and nodded, and left the break room.
Jolene stared into her sandwich.
"That's a shame," said the pineapple girl. "No offense," she added to Piper.
"Nah, it's cool."
"Why a shame?" Jolene asked.
"Well, just... I heard she was doing well, here. She'd been inside a couple times, worked on the Mayfield corner a lot. It's a shame it had to go that way."
The Mayfield corner was where women went to make money when they didn't have any other way to make it.
They were quiet for some minutes, but it was not the easy quiet Jolene was used to with the pineapple girl. Piper rocked her chair backwards, balancing on the back two legs, and popped her gum at the ceiling.
"So, you guys hear about that family down in Santa Clara?" Piper's voice bounced off the break room walls, and Jolene had a feeling that whatever calm she and the pineapple girl had with each other was probably gone.
"Nope." The pineapple girl said.
"Yeah, man, what a riot. Son with cancer, and their house was being foreclosed on or something, and fuck, man, I think the dad was illegal and the mom wasn't, or something, don't remember. Anyway, craziest shit, all in one week, kid gets better, family gets an inheritance from a long-lost relative they didn't know they had--guess the guy kicked it, and left them the whole shebang--and the dad's green card comes through. They're calling them "The Miracle on El Camino." Guess the news went to cover the story on the kid, with the cancer and everything, and found all the other stuff, too."
Piper looked back and forth between them, waiting for a reaction. She pulled her phone out of her pocket.
"Here--check it out," she prodded the screen and held it up to Jolene's face. Below the headline was a photograph of the family. They were standing in a kitchen, a short, rounded woman and a tall, thin man smiling behind three small children. Jolene took the phone and looked closer.
"Yeah, I know, right?" Piper said, but Jolene wasn't listening.
Behind the family was an open pantry. Along the top shelf, next to a half-empty bag of marshmallows, was a row of DelectaBrand Fruit Cocktail Cups. Jolene could not see the serial numbers in the photograph, and could not tell from which factory they'd been shipped. She could feel the hot tears beginning to fall down her face.
Piper reached slowly towards Jolene and took her phone back, standing and edging her way out of the break room. She didn't understand why the cherry girl was crying, but made a note to be especially careful when that girl was on shift, to watch especially close the cans coming down the line.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, December 3rd, 2013


The idea for "Lucky Cherry Luck" came from talking with my mother about her night shift in a cannery when she was young. I was intrigued by the automation of the work and the environment, and wondered what, if allowed access to them, a character might do with any special powers, given that extent of boredom. Although my mother is not the character in the story, she was in charge of the cherries at her factory.

- Kailyn McCord

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