The setting of this story, a pineapple cannery in 1970 Honolulu, is wonderfully unusual and well described, and the turns of the narrator’s mind are often delightful and surprising. “Dole Girl,” this year’s Aura Estrada Short Story Contest winner, evokes a very particular time and place and tone, as well as the narrator’s keen yearning to be free from those insular particularities.
—Ruth Ozeki, contest judge
At first I had a hard time telling the difference between fancy and choice. My forelady, Ethel Tanaka, was always on me about letting a choice pineapple go by and not putting it into the tray. “Hey, girlie, look at this spot,” she would say, picking up a pine I had checked, her blue cap pulled down over her hairline so you couldn’t see her hairnet. The rest of us wore white caps, our long hair coiled up in the back. We looked like a gang of sweaty, knife-wielding nuns. “This pine is dull,” Ethel Tanaka would say, “only good for chunk.” After a few weeks I could see that fancy pineapple was bright yellow with an almost translucent quality, while choice was rough and colorless, an anemic cousin to the luminous fancy pines. Choice pines ended up as chunk or crushed or even juice, though most of the time juice pines were sorted out before they got to the trimmers. Fancy pineapples were sliced and then each stack of golden discs was nestled in its own can of syrup.
We didn’t eat much canned pineapple in Hawai’i because fresh was so much better, but I guessed it was different on the mainland, in Wisconsin and Iowa and all those cold states I’d read about in books with their snow storms and blizzards. We didn’t even wear sweaters, though some old aunties would shiver in February and March when it rained almost every day. This is what I thought about as we left the fancy pineapples on the line and threw the choice in plastic tubs that were picked up by a group of boys, who flirted with us and made rude comments.
• • •
The Dole Cannery was just off Dillingham Boulevard, halfway between Diamond Head and Pearl Harbor. I applied everywhere else, but no one was hiring, or no one was hiring me. I was leaving Hawai’i in August for college in the Mainland, and I wanted at least $500. At Dole they paid $1.25 an hour, and more for overtime. In 1970 you could get a used VW bug for $300, and my dream was to go where I could drive for more than fifty miles. I had only applied to colleges on the East Coast, so I could get far away from my father’s weekly sermons on burning in hell. He was the minister of a small mission in Wai’anae and wanted me to go to Oral Roberts University or some other good Christian college, but I hadn’t studied so hard during high school to end up singing hymns and passing around the collection plate for missions in Africa. I had bigger plans. I had just become a vegetarian. I wanted a vegetarian boyfriend. We would live in a house with a fireplace and eat big bowls of vegetable soup by the roaring fire. I wanted to be cold for once.
Two weeks before school was out I applied for the job at Dole. They told me to come in on Monday after graduation and wear covered shoes and long pants. All my life I had passed the cannery and felt sorry for the people who worked there. During high season in the summer, the smell of pineapple permeated the air for miles around the cannery. Even the trade winds that kept the temperatures in the islands a moderate eighty-five degrees couldn’t dilute the sweet smell of hundreds of thousands of pineapples being peeled, cored, trimmed, sliced, crushed, juiced, and canned in the enormous tin-roofed factory. Above the factory loomed a giant steel and aluminum water tower in the shape of a pineapple, like the totem of some religious cult.
The first three weeks I worked at the cannery, I didn’t watch television. I couldn’t even read. I could barely eat. I would take a shower, wash out my white nylon apron and cap, hang them on the line, put out my clothes for the next day, and then go into my bedroom and cry myself to sleep. But over the weeks I made myself as hard as lava. I wasn’t one of the heroines in the novels I loved so much—going to balls, sipping tea, and taking long walks in the countryside. No, I was Jane Eyre, but worse because I was working in a factory. There were no Mr. Rochesters at Dole, no Darcys or Bingleys. No one was going to save me.
At first I even cried in the shower. It was all I could do not to cry on the bus, which was filled with my fellow workers just off from their shifts. Milton Matsuda, who picked up the trays of choice pineapple, sat down beside me and said things like, “Hey, girlie. You want go out with me? I show you some real fun. Not like those haole boys.” He had one of those mustaches like the fur on the stomach of an old dog, and he reeked of pineapple. Everyone on the bus reeked of pineapple. The odor and sweat kept me from crying. How could I when all the others weren’t? They’d just stood for hours, hacking away with sharp knives, manning the Ginacas, lifting heavy boxes, yet they were joking around, complaining about boyfriends, taking about a big lu’au for a baby’s first birthday.
When I transferred to my local bus in Chinatown, I felt like a leper, one of the people that Father Damien had worked with on Moloka’i. People stood to avoid sitting by me. Mary Kanohe said that pretty soon I would feel better, that it would get easier.
I met Mary Kanohe my first day. She was one of three matrons on the day shift. They trained the new girls. She gave us our aprons, caps, and the combinations to the lockers where we put our purses and lunches. Mary was Hawai’ian, and later Valerie Kim told me her husband had been killed in an accident when she was a young woman. She’d been left to raise five children alone, so she started working at the cannery in 1954. Of course, all I knew on my first day was that she was about my mother’s age, maybe a few years older.
“Working at Dole is the hardest thing you will ever do,” Mary Kanohe said in her lilting pidgin to the assembled group of twenty or so girls. “It’s hard for everyone. For the first few weeks you think you will never stop being tired, but you get strong. Believe me.” The other girls and I looked like prisoners of war—in a battle we didn’t even know we were fighting.
The first thing we did was take a tour. Mary Kanohe led us across a ramp walkway above the floor that was used to parade tourists through the cannery. Nothing could prepare you for the roar of the Ginaca, the machine that peeled and cored the pineapples. I used to think that hell would be like the factory, except there would be no hourly wage. Years later when I went to Italy and saw early Renaissance frescoes of the Last Judgment, the monsters eating the damned looked as if they might be capable of producing such a clamor of heat and noise.
“Okay, then,” Mary Kanohe said. We were standing at a table with cored, peeled pineapples. “When the pines come off the Ginaca, they come to the trimmers. The first girl on the table will count out six pines and then take number seven for herself. Pick up the pine and put it on your finger like this.” She took the yellow fruit and placed it on her index finger. “You turn it with your thumb and trim off all the brown spots. Then you put it on the line and take another one.”
I did this eight hours a day for nearly three months. I would stand spinning those heavy pines on my finger with my left thumb, trimming off the brown spots with the knife in my right hand. I would wake in the morning with my hand cramped, finger extended and thumb bent. Only after running hot water over my hand and rubbing it with Vaseline would the fingers loosen and be ready again to hold and spin the pines.
My shift began early in the morning. I ate a bowl of cereal with a banana or raisins, anything but pineapple. Then I’d make my lunch, a sandwich and a piece of fruit. I usually wasn’t hungry so early in the day. I only ate so I wouldn’t faint on the job. When I first started, I lost a lot of weight. I couldn’t keep food down. The smell and the noise gripped my stomach and filled my mouth with sawdust. Even when I wasn’t at the cannery, I could still hear the roar of the Ginaca like an angry god, a belligerent minor deity interested only in vengeance.
All the summer workers were a little like me. We never imagined adult life like this: numbing repetitive labor, long painful days, and nights as brief as the snap of your fingers. On weekends all I wanted to do was sleep. Sometimes friends would lure me out, but it wasn’t the same. I went to see Janis Joplin at the HIC in July. The only song I remember was “Summertime.” She was smaller than I’d thought she’d be, but her voice was enormous, filling the big room with her blues.
The first few weeks, Mary Kanohe would stop by the new girls’ tables and help out. We were always too slow, and she would sing to make the time pass. She had a beautiful soprano voice. She’d sing everything: hymns, folk songs, country and western. She even knew some Bob Dylan songs her sons had taught her. The girl beside me was named Susan, so Mary sang “Oh! Susanna” for her. “That’s your song, girlie,” Mary said to her, smiling. “Don’t you ever forget it.”
We didn’t have time cards or punch a clock. Instead we were given a little piece of paper that we pinned to the back of our aprons. It had our name, employee number, the date we started working, and our job title: packer, trimmer. Once every shift the timekeeper would come around, and we’d be paid at the end of the week. Sometimes when there were a lot of pines, we’d work overtime.
I was always so tired, I don’t know how I got home. As I would trudge up the hill, kids playing before dinner would run out and yell, “Dole girl, Dole girl.” Little Floyd Radford threw a rotten guava at me once. He missed but it made me mad. I’d babysat for him and his brothers every Friday night for two years while their parents went bowling. I made popcorn and played Parcheesi, and I’d let them stay up an hour later than I was supposed to. I brought up a roar that I hoped would equal the Ginaca’s, but I sounded more like a screeching cat. I chased the little shits down the street, but they were laughing and screaming, “Nanny nanny boo boo” and sticking out their tongues.
At first, I didn’t talk much when I worked, afraid I might cut myself with the trimming knife, especially near the end of the shift or when we were working overtime. We got two ten-minute breaks, in the morning and afternoon. I hated break time because I didn’t smoke, and all it did was make me aware of how numb my hands and feet were. At the trimming tables I was at least too busy to feel it.
My mother said I was lucky—not like my sister, who had gotten knocked up at fifteen, or my brother, who was buried at Punchbowl.
I first met Valerie Kim during the half-hour lunch break. I think we were on the second shift. I had gone into the locker room, gotten my little brown bag lunch, and walked into the cafeteria. You could buy a cheap lunch there, usually some kind of stew and rice or noodles. I sat down by Valerie because she was a familiar face. I’d been working at the same table since I’d started.
“It looks like you gonna make it, eh?” she said, chopsticks and noodles moving toward her mouth so fast they were a blur.
I was chewing a dry piece of sandwich, peanut butter. It was the beginning of July. I took a bite of apple, so I could swallow.
“The other girls take bets, you know, if you gone last.”
I looked up from my apple.
She shook her head. “You were looking had-it, you know?”
I nodded. I felt weak. I didn’t even know if I wanted to go to college anymore. I didn’t want to do anything except sleep.
“Only Mary and I said that you would do it.”
“Why?” I said.
“Mary’s one nice lady. She thinks everyone will make it. But I saw your jaw. My granny have one jaw like that. When she want something bad, she put her teeth together real hard and nothing can stop her. She one tough old lady.”
Valerie was Korean and Japanese. Her mother was Japanese, but she said you could only see the Korean. “Don’t make the same mistake I did. I married the first guy I dated, Vernon Kim. Vernon and Valerie—God, it makes me sick just to think of him. I was so stupid. I even make matching aloha shirts and muumuus for us and little Nicole and Derek. We stay married long enough to have two kids, and then he split and move to the mainland. He never even want to see the kids.”
Valerie was twenty-nine. She had been on her own since she was nineteen. On that first day we talked she asked me, “Why you working here?”
For a few minutes my mind scrambled for a reason I thought she’d like to hear.
Valerie must have seen the panic in my face, because she said, “Don’t be ’shamed. It cannot be that bad.”
“I’m saving for college.”
“What’s so bad about that?”
“Nothing, I guess.” But something seemed wrong. How could I go to college, read books, think about being and nothingness when women older than my mother stood all day and trimmed pineapples?
There were seats at the trimming tables, but you couldn’t sit down and do the work, so unless something happened to the machines, we stood all day. I worked at table seventeen. The foreladies walked around in their blue caps and checked that you were doing your work. The trouble was that one would tell you one thing and another would tell you something else. Margaret Ishida said she had been a forelady once but didn’t like it. “Too much pressure,” she said. Margaret was a Baptist and liked to sing hymns while we trimmed. When she found out my dad was a minister, she took me under her wing. One thing for sure, I knew all the songs. Even now I know all four verses of “Onward Christian Soldiers” and the first and last verse of most others. The funny thing was, singing helped.
Onward Christian soldiers marching off to war
With the flag of Jesus going on before
Christ the royal master leads against the foe
Forward into battle see his armies go
I sang with Margaret Ishida over the roar of the Ginaca. One cored pineapple after another—I stuck my index finger in the central cavity, rotating the fruit with my thumb, trimming the brown spots. It was like a holy battle, only my enemy wasn’t Satan.
One evening in July when I got home, my mother was in one of her funks. A couple of years before she had moved me and four of my brothers and sisters to Honolulu. We still went out to Wai’anae on Sunday for church, but that was it. Something had happened between my parents. They said the move was for the schools, but only Michael stayed in Wai’anae with my dad. My oldest brother Johnny had died in Vietnam, and Lulu had gotten pregnant and married Henry Pauole, who lived next door to the mission. My mother told me one of the girls at church, Maile Tengan, had been raped at Ala Moana the night before. A guy abducted her and took her to Tantalus.
The next day at work I was thinking so much about Maile that the line got backed up, so the forelady had to stand beside me and help. It was Mrs. Tanaka.
“What you thinking about, girlie?” she asked, rotating a pineapple and nicking away the imperfections. “Whatever it is, it’s not pines. They’re not paying you to think about your boyfriend.” She had me sorted out in a minute or two, and I concentrated on the pineapples until lunch.
In the lunchroom I sat by myself, thinking about Maile again. I didn’t know what sex was like except in books, those line drawings that made nothing clear. When I was younger, I had thought I’d develop a tattoo on my abdomen like those black and white drawings in books of the uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries. The whole year after they showed us the movie in fifth grade, I kept checking to see if the black lines had started to show. My sister, Lulu, caught me looking at my bare stomach one day when we were at the beach. “What are you looking at?” she said, but I couldn’t tell her, because she would laugh at me. She didn’t believe in anything.
Valerie Kim sat down beside me in the lunchroom. “Hey, what’s the matter?”
At first I thought I shouldn’t say anything, but I just blurted it out. “Someone I know was raped the other night at Ala Moana.”
Valerie looked down at the table. She sat there eating her noodles. I guess there was nothing you could really say, but after a while she put her chopsticks down and said, “I was raped once.”
“Oh no, Valerie,” I said.
She made a little crooked grimace with her mouth. It was something between a smile and the face you’d make if someone stuck you with a needle or hit you on the arm a little harder than expected.
“It wasn’t so bad. It was like having sex with your boyfriend when you don’t want to. The bad part was he had a knife. I kept thinking, who would take care of my kids if he killed me? The answer was my mother. She’s always saying I’m no good for the kids. She’d love to get her hands on them. So I kept real still, and when it was over, he let me go.”
“Did you call the police?”
“Nah, they just make fun. It was over. I went to the doctor. The guy didn’t even have the clap. I was lucky.”
Lucky. I knew that Maile would never think she was lucky. What was luck? My mother said I was lucky to like school so much and be levelheaded and not like my sister, who had gotten knocked up at fifteen, or my brother, who was buried at Punchbowl before he was nineteen because he’d volunteered to go to Vietnam. My mother had nine children. Was that luck? I didn’t think so. The first time I had sex a year later, I used three kinds of birth control and wished I’d had four. Was that luck? Maybe.
Usually Valerie and I ate lunch together. Sometimes Margaret Ishida joined us, but she was a Christian, and that really put a damper on our conversations, which consisted almost entirely of Valerie telling me about her romantic exploits, which never included her steady boyfriend, Wayne Imamura, who was too boring for her. Wayne worked for the city. He wanted to marry Valerie, and he loved the kids.
“I don’t know if I’m ready for my life to be over, you know. Wayne never like to do nothing, especially spend money. All he like do is watch TV, go to church, and check his savings book. He never even like go to the beach.”
“Why does he like you?” I said. It was the end of July, and I was feeling pretty good. I didn’t cry any more, and my arms were strong. I even had muscles. When I went to the beach, I looked great in my bikini because my stomach was so flat.
“I ask myself the same question,” said Valerie.
“Did you ever ask him?”
“Sure, and he say ’cause I fun. I say, ‘How you know, since you never take advantage of my fun side?’”
“What does he say?”
“Nothing. Oh, yeah, he say I’m ‘one lively conversationalist.’ Jeeze!”
Valerie liked to go to bars with her friend Linda and pick up sailors. She hated Marines. She said they were sadists, and GIs were stupid.
“Sailors are stupid, too, but they’re fun.”
“What do you mean, fun?” I asked. My mother and father were teetotalers, so I thought she meant getting tipsy and dancing.
“You know—fun,” she said, shaking her head and giving me one of those crooked smiles.
I must have looked blank, because she said, “You don’t know!”
Valerie didn’t tease me. “One day you’ll find out what fun is.” She grinned. “Now you have something besides college to look forward to.”
The summer of 1970 was a good one for pineapples. We worked overtime a lot. My mother found a little portable typewriter that someone she worked with wanted to sell. She took it to Yamashita’s Business Machines and had it serviced and gave it to me for my birthday. One Saturday in mid-August she took me to Ala Moana and we bought underwear, jeans, sweaters, all the cold-weather clothes I had never needed before. She wouldn’t let me pay for anything. The only thing she said was, “I have a job, too.”
During my last week at Dole, Valerie didn’t show up for work. On break, I asked Mary where she was, but Mary didn’t know. The next day Margaret Ishida told me, “Val go out with one sailor. He take something that make him lolo and then throw her off the balcony of her apartment. Lucky for her she land on a VW van. Now it have a dent the shape of Val’s okole in the roof.”
Margaret and I were standing across from each other, trimming pines. I could talk while twirling the cored fruit on my finger, nicking out the brown spots like an expert. I could spot a choice pine right away and put it in the tray. Ethel Tanaka told me she would hire me full time in the fall if I wanted. She was wearing a twenty-five-year button.
Valerie was at Kapi’olani hospital with a broken leg and a concussion. The last time I saw her, she was in a bed, leg in a sling. A tiny Japanese woman was in the room along with two children, a girl of ten and a boy eight.
“Hey,” she said when she saw me. “It’s the haole girl.”
I gave her the box of candy I’d bought at Long’s Drugs.
“Look, kids, candy!” she said to the girl and boy and handed them the box. They were sitting on the chairs like two little grownups. The girl took the box and held it in her lap.
“Open it,” Valerie said. “It’s the good stuff.”
The girl looked at her grandmother, who shook her head and pursed her lips.
“We have to be going,” Val’s mother said, standing up and straightening her skirt. “School is tomorrow. Kiss your mother,” she said to the children. The girl stood back, but she obeyed her grandmother. The boy gave Valerie such a hug that he almost pulled her off the bed. “I love you,” he said.
When they left, I saw Valerie was crying.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“What isn’t?” she said, turning her head to the window.
• • •
On my last day at Dole, my friends had a little party for me in the lunchroom. They bought me school supplies: a couple of notebooks and some number-two pencils. “You better study hard, girlie,” said Mary Kanohe, “or you’ll end up back here.” They all laughed—Mary, Mrs. Tanaka, Margaret Ishida.
I was lucky to work at Dole, but I was even luckier to walk out the doors and never look back, to go to college in Florida, and never darken the door of a church again. I woke up every Sunday morning and made a cup of tea and read long novels or poetry until I couldn’t stand the feel of the sheets against my skin. I didn’t think once about hell or Jehovah dropping out of the sky to sizzle me for my not keeping his day holy. Maybe I was keeping it holy in my own way, though at the time I felt as if I had just broken out of prison.
When I showed up for college, I bought a yellow VW bug and drove it to the beach. The Gulf of Mexico was like a dank endless pond after the wild blue of the Pacific. On the way back to school my friends and I stopped at a sinkhole and took a dip in the fresh water that flowed up from the aquifer. Every time I started up that VW I thought of the Dole Cannery and my friends there.
I saw the Pacific again the summer before my senior year in college. I drove the VW to California and back with my second vegetarian boyfriend. He was better than the first, but not someone I ever wanted to go to California with again.