Packed in the early morning dark at the state farmer's market and driven down the Keys, the semi bumps up to the loading dock. I am wearing a coat pulled from a rack by the lockers—nappy, fake shearling lining, a box cutter in the left pocket, a Marks-A-Lot in the right. The tailgate slaps upward into the ceiling and we stare inside before we start.
We ram pallet jacks into the splintered wooden frames, pump the jacks, drag the pallets backward into the network of cavernous coolers: one has a ceiling as high as a gymnasium, yellow-gray sprayed-on insulation and rebar arching overhead; another, called Siberia, has low ceilings, banks of loud, tarnished fans, and a maze of gleaming Metroshelving. In the ripening room, stacked with flat cardboard cases of mangoes, papayas, and strawberries, the air is warm and thick as a greenhouse, everything smelling of earth and ethylene.
In Siberia, I move asparagus, rubber banded together and upright in cartons of corrugated lavender plastic. I carry long, narrow, feather-light boxes of mushrooms—shiitake, enoki, portobello, crimini. I toss garbage bags of basil, fat, piney bunches of rosemary, muddy, dripping clumps of cilantro. I smash my fingers between cases of cantaloupes, pull splinters from my palms. I unload scallions, bunches packed in ice and stacked into waxed cardboard boxes.
All of the rooms are separated by heavy plastic flaps. All of them breathe with the smells of cardboard, ice, and the vegetal aroma of so many cut green cells exhaling at once.
On break by the fish room, our grizzled fish cutter Byron, dressed in international orange vinyl overalls, again out on work-release, takes apart a missile-sized tuna. He waves me closer with his knife to show me the slot in the fish's back where its dorsal fin retracts. "Fuckin' badass, idnit?" he says in his West Virginia accent.
Beside me in the coolers, Frank, in a red flannel vest, pivots a pallet of carrots, the fifty-pound bags criss-crossed like logs. He quotes Einstein, keeps a dog-eared, hard-cover copy of the complete lyrics of Bob Dylan in his locker, sleeps under the loading dock some nights, I'm told, and when he leaves town, has his mail forwarded to the bar across the street from the Salinas Greyhound station.
When the truck is empty, I stand in front of a large basin sink and run my numb hands under warm water, all of the capillaries in my fingertips engorged, exploding, as if my hands will split wide open and bloom.