Huckleberry Wine

Alan P. Scott - Fictions

an old one

We didn't grow the berries we crushed to make huckleberry wine. They were trucked in from the Other Side, in big 18-wheelers like the ones on the TV nights. They came in boxes marked "Fragile - Do Not Stack More Than 6 High." We piled them in stacks of 10 on the loading docks (they were going to be crushed anyway), and the forklifts took them into the crushing room.

Moe and I worked beside each other in the crushing room. We could see, through the windows in the booth, the automatic machinery that opened and emptied each crate into the vats. Moe and I were there to stop the machinery if there was a bad crate, or if one fell into the vat by mistake.

Moe really liked it when a crate fell into the vat. Then the whole vatload had to be dumped, and Moe could eat some of the huckleberries. Procedures said we weren't allowed to eat any but Moe just laughed. He always said we weren't going to be canned over a few blueberries. Huckleberries, I always corrected. Whatever, he always replied. He'd offered me a few but I always turned him down. He finally gave up trying.

Not that I wasn't relieved. Moe just didn't understand how important quality control is. I never caught him at it, but sometimes I suspected him of rigging some of the crates to break loose and fall. I myself couldn't stand huckleberries after my first six months, or the damned wine. We were sort of expected to buy a case every so often, just to show the employees liked it, but I ended up just throwing it out.

Moe, on the other hand, never seemed to get tired of the stuff. He used to sneak a bottle or two into the booth when we worked the graveyard shift. The bastard. He reeked of the awful stuff. But there really wasn't anything to be done about it. He was right. We weren't going to get fired for a few berries. So I had no choice but to go on working with him, alone in the booth, never able to get away. It was bearable - just.

Until the day I overheard two supers talking in the hall outside the booth. They didn't realize I could hear them through the vent.

"Have you thought about how the computer is going to affect the crushing room staff?"

"Oh, yeah. We'll be able to streamline by fifty percent."

"Have you decided which one is gonna be the fifty?"

"Well, it won't be Moe Sansom! That guy's got the right attitude - stays on the good side of the boss and keeps up his image with all that wine. 'Smuggling' it into the control room - as if we cared. The stuff isn't even alcoholic!"

I almost gave myself away. That bastard! Going behind my back, brownnosing his way into my job! But I was cool about it. Oh, yeah. I knew I had a little time.

Meanwhile, Moe got worried. The prospect of one of us being fired had leaked (not through me, I might add, though I was kind of glad at the results), and Moe was sure, after all my assurances of his misconduct, that he would be the one to bite the bullet. His mood wasn't improved by the fact that they started scheduling us for half shifts by ourselves.

Things came to a head when Moe showed up an hour early one day. He begged me to quit. Me! He was crazy - he should be looking for comfortable benches in the park, not asking me to give up my job. I have an ex-wife to support - he didn't have anyone, he told me so!

A crate jammed, and I just knew he'd done it. With only half an hour left in my shift, too! I didn't say anything, though. Just went into the vat room to unclog the arms. The air was filled with the sound of the crushers turning aimlessly, without new berries to chew. Moe followed me. He was crying, the schmuck.

I didn't mean to do it, though. He just got too close, and when I pushed him away he tripped, and fell into the vat.

He didn't even have time to scream before he was buried in berries. I couldn't move. All I could think of was that phrase, "buried in berries," as he disappeared from view. I repeated it, over and over again, watching his purpled fingertips, like large berries, the last of him to go under.

It wasn't until much later that I realized I was home free. All I had to do was say he never showed up - must've gotten scared and quit before (he thought) they fired him. I could do it, I thought. No one had been in the alley when I let him in the back. No one would ever know.

So I did. And all that about crime not paying? It does.

Oh, and one more thing: I've started drinking huckleberry wine.

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