#2.2 of the Gap Decade Chronicles
Three days before the Deathpurse the whole fleet come in to port for the Fourth of July holiday and the ships tie up gunwale to gunwale on the docks six deep. First morning at port Lucio shakes my shoulder roughly and wakes me up and no human has touched me directly in weeks and the ignition buzzer hasn’t sounded and something is wrong.
¿Què sucede? I ask
El Capitan. ElpincheCapitan.
I look to the bunk above me in the bow of the ship and he is gone but I am always the last up.
¿Dònde està El Capitan?
Està arriba, en punto de matar un pincheindio que nos ha robado.
It’s a rare sunny day in Alitak and I squint coming up ondeck and the Captain stands in his sasquatchian immensity holding up a teenage Alutiiq boy by the throat against the outer wall of the cabin. Chava holds back the other captains and Javier DeJesus yells in Spanish and the boy squirms and kicks and garbles spit from the sides of his mouth and the Captain stands red and angry and firm the only silent one in the scene and the skiff is upside down on the dock and he says
Fisher you tell these Mexicans to stop hollerin. This boy stole from me and if I kill him here and now the world won’t miss him. Fisher you tell the Mexicans to CalmthehellDown so I can hear this boy die. And the Mexicans only hear the tone but the boy knows English just fine and in fact may have lost his ancient tongue before he was born and tears join his saliva at the corners of his mouth and Chava yells at Lucio and Javier DeJesus yells at me and Lucio grimaces and says
Yo no voy a perder a mi temperada a causa de este chingòn.
Captain, you kill that boy and we lose our season.
We already lost our season. Little pissant stole our skiff and joyrided it to death and now we’ll miss our Opening. And he stared hard at the asphyxiating boy who could only now look the Captain in the eye when held up the extra eighteen inches by the throat.
Captain you kill that boy and you lose all your seasons. I’ll go back to college and the Mexicans’ll fish on and you alone will lose your ship. You kill that boy and we all go home.
Put him down and Lucio’ll fix the skiff and we’ll be at Sea when we get to Sea.
Put him down please, Captain.
And he stared hard at the boy and not at me.
And the boy fell in an air-sucking heap on the deck.
And I felt proud of diplomacy and the power of Words and of Man’s ability to come to Reason.
But my Reason is for shit in this place. Because after dropping him the Captain set upon the boy with his fists and then with a thick wooden dowel and he beat him with it, and no amount of Mexicans nor fellow captains could tear him off, and he beat and beat and frothed his own spittle from his mouth and forgot to breathe and in his rage he pulverized the boy with the dowel and he left the boy a sickening mass of flesh at his feet and breathing but shallowly and even Chava looked away and Javier DeJesus jumped on the Captain’s back and that the boy lived I know only from the other captains who watched the Medivac go and return with a State Trooper asking questions that no one answered.
And true enough the skiff had been stolen, word is for the boy’s eighteenth birthday, and the near fatal error to return it to the Cannery instead of leaving it on a lagoon beach somewhere with owner none the wiser. Some harbinger of justice or gossip or both running down the docks at dawn shouting that a Native Boy had stolen a skiff and the Captain realizing in front of all his peers that it had been His and the boy paraded in front of him for a ridiculing before anyone realized how angry he would be when faced with his plaintiff in the flesh. And lives have ended for less than that in the fisheries of Kodiak Island, and somewhere out there I hope that the boy lives and has his faculties, and treads carefully upon the docks with those that would abuse him in the land of his ancestors.
El Cuarto De Julio
Two days before the Deathpurse was the fourth of July and the holiday meant showers every day. Two weeks at Sea without plumbing and it’s one thing to hang your ass over the side of the ship in the Calm but in Storms you go down, down into the hold with the fish not yet brought to Market and they surround you held in by boards saturated with blood and oil and slime and the chill of the preservative ice as you shit in a bucket. And you have nothing but that selfsame bucket to hang onto in the pitching Sea, for excrement is foul enough without having to steady your hand against the gutstrewn boards of the hold to keep you upright. Above deck you tie the bucket to a line and pass it overboard and wait for the Sea to accept your waste as it does for all the creatures that live and thrive within it knowing well enough that if your knot be amateur there are no more buckets and your ass goes over storm or no, along with those whose hands were not responsible for bad knots so you check your knot thoroughly. And this closeness to your filth is constant for even when we arrived in Alitak and had our Showers which a man looked forward to a week in advance we could not shower in the Cannery quarters but instead had to use the huts downstream from the waste plant, for fishermen were not employees of the Operation and thus were not under its care. Next to the bucket ondeck we had a plastic milk crate and each man took a turn walking the crate up the hill to the showers. Although the water was blessed hot and thank the benevolent Cannery for it we still cleaned ourselves on the piped path between the waste plant and the Sea and after a couple minutes of hot water raw sewage would begin to burble up from the drain and fill the floor of the shower. After two weeks or more Away the hot water was just too precious to let pass in so short a time so we perched atop our milkcrate in hot soapy sanitary bliss for fifteen twenty thirty minutes because to be Truly Clean is worth levitating above the shit of Industry by a mere six inches, and never once did I elect a short shower to avoid the filth below me before heading back out to Sea. And on our portstay for the holiday I showered each day in succession like it was Normal Life.
The Cannery gave the holiday off to everyone but a skeleton staff and the Captain flew to Town to meet his wife there and we had two days to do a halfday’s chores. Chava and I mended net and Lucio repaired the skiff and Javier DeJesus scoured the cabin and we were suddenly on our own time for the first instance of the season. We played soccer in the warehouse and bought bootleg liquor off the Salvadoreño and there was poker and cribbage and the guys in the EggRoom set up a projector and sang karaoke all day. A Mexican kid on the Miss Palomar had been fired his last stint out and left ashore. He hadn’t stopped drinking for two days and lay despondently on the dock yelling in slurs at whoever passed. He punched a wall, wrecked his hand, passed out. We stepped over him coming and going most of the day.
The Cannery workers held a sort of a party. They piled crates at the edge of the Cannery property and in the cloudy dusk of late evening lit them aflame and played loud music and drank beers from their own smuggler and though the fishermen were not invited we came anyway and a dozen nations gathered around the bonfire.
The fishermen drinking too heavily and proclaiming their crews the hardest of men, the longest of Opening, possessing the strongest of constitutions when compared to their audience and competitors. They slap each other on the back and sing their own praises and are loud and full of blood and muscle and beards if not always teeth.
The collegesummershiftboys on the other side of the fire, pointing firecrackers at each other, drawing cameras from pockets and taking group photos with their baseballcaps worn sideways out of drunkenness or irony or the unfortunate mixture of both and University of SouthSomewhereState sweatshirts cut off at the elbows from working the Line. They holler at their comparable passing FrontofHouse girls working Kodiak for schoolmoney who start out strong but are wise enough to see the rough mood and turn in early out of some vague sense of self preservation. The collegecanneryboys drink as much as the fishermen but they are more attractive and better dressed and daily showered (in stalls without shit on the floor) which makes them by suburban standards more civilized but Civilization will not stand merely cosmetic here at the ass end of the world. Such Surfacebreeding without armature is shed all the more quickly and one cannot make the gentlemen from the barbarians simply by the cues of our origins or which side of the fire we stand upon. And I feel a growing separateness from both groups because I know I do not want to fish again next season just as surely as I know I do not want to return to college in the Autumn. And I wish I were paid and on the move already.
Chava was off with his lady behind the tank farm and Javier playing truco on the Miss Palomar and Lucio arrived wearing his stiff white jeans and his polished Australian workboots and a handle of Rich&Rare in his fatty hands and he stood by the fire alone and solemn and spoke to no one. The younger Mexicans gave him room and let him be. A Gwich’in man from my hometown gave me a couple swigs of his Black Velvet and he started out friendly as we reminisced over common hometown things but his mood switched by some unknown trigger and he began yelling at me and grew enraged and eventually he had to be held back by his peers, and I trudged back to The Sounder in the only true hour of darkness carrying some of it into the cabin with me. And it began to drizzle and I slept fitfully.
In the night I awoke and since we were at port I took advantage and walked up the hill to the facilities. The weather had picked up and I slung on my orange slicker and felt the rain fall off me harmlessly. These are the odd subarctic hours when it is vaguely light but Man lacking the stamina for a land without darkness and not a soul awake to see the flaccid insomniac sun and the silence an odd soundtrack for the soft light, like one of those films you watch where the world has ended and you walk down an unoccupied place meant for occupation. Lucio had drunk himself red in the face and passed out against a packing crate by the dead hissing fire and there were spent firecrackers and broken bottles and cigarette butts and vomit and one inexplicably-discarded Extra-Tuff-Boot and Lucio, who lay on his back in the dirt gone to mud, his white jeans irrevocably soiled with earth and ash.
In the warehouse I found a long metal palettecart and drug it to the muddy bonfire site and tried to roll Lucio onto it. He gave no aid nor notice and lay corpselike in the holiday’s aftermath and I wedged one hand into his armpit and grabbed his fleshy sidebreast then grabbed his belt with the other and spent all my thighs hauling him onto the palettecart. I’d not brought my full wets just my slicker and my shins and knees grew instantly covered in cold mud and his skin was also cold and clammy. I pulled the cart into the warehouse out of the rain swearing at him in two languages and pulled his body to the end of the dock. The Cannery was empty which seemed to encourage the echoing cacophony of the Kodiak Rains on the metal roof. If Lucio made a sound of complaint or thanks I wouldn’t have heard it over the million water marble poundings above and my lingering drunkenness within. The tide was too low and I couldn’t risk the steep ramp to the fleet with that much bulk on the palettecart and there was no way to leave him on Cannery Property so I sat under the gateway on the end of the palettecart and watched the Sea refill itself at the Sky’s expense.
The day before the Deathpurse I sat there at the edge of the warehouse with the motionless Lucio, waiting on the tide. Though at first I was wet and shivering I slowly grew comfortable and watched the rain. It fell in a palpable sheet a mere armslength out and nothing but a small overhang to shield us from the wrath of the Sky and though dirty drunk and in comatose company I felt distinctly comfortable in my shelter. It reminded me of my first night at the Denver airport, reading my map under the cantilever, watching the lightning against Colorado’s Front Range. Many years later, on Ohio’s ample front porches in the summer thunderstorms I would feel this odd comfort again, wrapped in a blanket on an outdoor couch and the world crashing down a mere five feet out in the street and people running to their cars with newspapers or whatever else they can find over their heads, me watching the City from dry safety. And again once on the veranda in The Solomons in the monsoon and in a winter tent in a Chugach blizzard with my brothers. And I suspect the Ancients must have sometimes watched the rain from as close to the edge of the cavemouth as they could get, relishing in this singular form of comfort that comes in those moments when we are made aware of our ever proximity to discomfort. And the further in our shared modern history we progress the less aware of the world’s default harshness we become, and as perhaps a consequence we are almost never at ease. And I suppose I slept.
Gracìas por no dejarme, Lucio said.
The tide had come back up to us and the ramp now manageable and the sun somewhere out there beyond the fog but Lucio still lay prone and soggy on the palettecart.
Gracìas, Feesher, he said again.
De nalgas, cabròn.
¿Sabès que significa El Cuarto de Julio?
It’s our national holiday. Ya sabes.
No, Feesher. Hoy es el dìa de la quinciñera de mi hija.
Which daughter? Where?
La mayora. En Sonora.
And we sat and made no move to the ship. Gulls began their day of robbery and infighting and no one yet stirred on the docks below and I wondered if the Cannery had given two straight days off or if I’d just never realized how quiet this place of industry could be at four in the morning.
I am sorry about your daughter’s quinciñera.
When will you go home, Lucio?
He grimaces and spits.
No sè, Feesher. ¿When will you?
He put his palms against his temple and pulled what hair he had outwards and he mumbled in Spanish at me and most of it I understood.
Guey, fishing is dying. By the time you are old and ready to pass they will be farming them like cattles. Feeding them their own shit. Selling them in plastic tubes. I will hope that comes to pass after I am dead. I know no other profession. Why do you come to work here? What do you do here? You are not a marinero. You should go back to the university. Go back to the land. Sleep with beautiful women, read books in cafes, buy a car. What do you want from the Sea? I hear you talk. I see you write in your little notebook. What are you writing? Stories? Philosophies? You and Javier, you are not men with hands. You should do something else. Something like the educated men. Quizàs. Live your story and then write it for others.
We sit silently a moment. And I say the world is stock full of college boys that did one summer’s fishing and wrote a story about it. Fishermen that spend their entire lives at Sea must hate this. There is nothing new in their story and not enough duration for it even to be the Truth. This is what I say. It is the concern of the young, this ache for authenticity. For in the young there is a moment of sickening realization that you’re not as special as your grandmother told you you were, that we’ve been here millennia and that there’s nothing left undone, no novel adventure to write about, nothing lasting, nothing long enough to be an authority on. Every day is disjointed and short. A young man wants to start something long and epic, something lasting. But nothing sticks. Not home, Not university, not fishing. You can’t write a Life in short little chapters. A young man needs a Grand Adventure. Meaning. And all the good Meaning has already been dibs-ed, and passed into pastiche and cliché and irony and back to Meaning again. Before you were ever even born. This is what I said to Lucio as we sat on the palettecart, watching the rain. He looked impatient at me.
No mames guey. How long is not the matter. Short things matter also. I lost my virginity in less than five minutes. By a creek in the Summer I was thirteen and she also and it passed in five minutes. I was changed by it. Forever. Now I am old and I can do it for hours and it never changes me for nothing. The Sea is like this, Feesher. It can change you quickly. Significance is not Duration. We walk in our sleep. Years pass with nothing and then in a day we are changed. Marked. Be marked and leave. Find your place and if you are one of esos tipos that do not have a place then learn to move with the seasons. We had the capacity to do this in the beginning. Los Seres Humanos. It is still in us. Do not be a fisherman, and do not be a student. And do not stay here.
He heaved himself up. Stared at the Sea in that way I’d learned to imitate but I never saw what they saw.
El Capitan, vuelve hoy, no?
He hitched his filthysoaked jeans up and patted his bald forehead.
And walked in his waddlestrut down the ramp.
The day of the Deathpurse the Sky was a dark gray that matched the Sea and once we got clear of land one couldn’t be discerned from the other. The Reds were near finished and the Pinks were flooding homeward in their turn and their numbers were legion. The boom couldn’t handle the purse in all its bounty and it kept stalling out and Javier DeJesus and I had to brail giant teeming wads of Pinks out the net and into the hold before the purse grew light enough to come up over the boom. We filled the hold near up in only three sets and began dumping ice overboard to make more room and the Captain gleaming in his success and we with him and Chava joking on the leads and singing songs in English he scarce knew the meaning of that his lady had taught him. He sang I’d Rather Go Down on My Ol’ Granma Than Down on the Bering Sea phonetically from memory and the Captain laughed himself to fits and even Lucio far out on the skiff could be seen to smile and the hold only got fuller and we all knew we were rich men in the making.
There’s only two ways to die fishing and they are Fatigue and Greed and we had both in us the day of the Deathpurse. My forearms aren’t built for brailing and my full bodyweight in squirming fish had to be pulled out in shifts as The Sounder leaned Starboard nearly to the surface of the Sea with the purse like an anchor at its side. It was the Captain’s secret spot and early yet and we alone to win the jackpot and we worked without sleeping and missed our meals though Javier DeJesus made little snacks. My knuckles white and wrinkled and veins I’d never seen before on my arms and Chava coked up and hurling leads like some frenetic God of Labor.
Quickly the weather turned and the winds picked up but nobody noticed. The Captain had shown wisdom and restraint in the face of storms all summer long and often said a man is better off on land wishing he were at Sea than the reverse. But the prize was great and we underestimated just how full we were and though the storm was announced on the VHF me and the Mexicans and the Captain too were all deaf to it out of inexperience and monolingualism and ambition, respectively. And finally the Captain and Lucio looked West together to the Shelikof and didn’t like what they saw and made some shared signal. It was decided that we’d do one more set and then head someplace safe, for the Oncoming looked rough and we were heavy and low on the water.
But by the time Lucio started the set the winds were upon us, so he cut it short and pulled in. He passed the end to the Captain who tied it off and cursed us to stack the haul doubletime. The wave action picked up and we went from five foot seas to fifteen in less than a halfhour and The Sounder could handle double that even pregnant with fish but the boom stalled again as we drifted parallel to the swell and the Captain peered into the purse and paled and screamed for the brailer. We’d taken in half a holdsworth of Pinks in one single giant purse and in our ignorance Javier DeJesus and I cheered at the sight of such bounty but the Captain and Lucio stared angrily into the water and then West to the storm and they were wise enough to have the Fear in them. For that much fish would never fit into the full hold and could never be pulled up by the boom anyway and couldn’t even escape back into the water. The great swollen purse cinched itself up to our Starboard side like a weighty tumor, and began to pull us slowly into the Sea.
The Starboard side slipped below the waterline and the planks of the hold began to float on the deck. Lucio loosed the line to the skiff and ran it round back of the ship to Portside and passed a line aboard. Chava tied it to a cleat and Lucio revved the skiff away from the ship fullthrottle trying to add counterweight to the Portside to keep the heavy Starboard from capsizing us. But the Portside was too high on the water and the skiff had never been the same since being stolen and not strong enough to right it, and we kept listing in. We gave up on righting the ship and tried instead to pull out the net but the boom gave no sign of passing the task. We stood in ankledeep water on the Starboard side and stared dumbly at the purse as the swell washed over it ondeck every few seconds. A couple more minutes parallel to the swell and we’d sink. The Captain told Chava to work the boom while he went into the cabin to rev the prop and steer us out of the swell. Javier who had never held the leads took Chava’s station, gripping the heavy line as hard as he could with fists, and he pulled as he’d seen done.
The Captain couldn’t see from inside the cabin but the web had drifted back behind the ship and as he revved the prop it caught the net and pulled it violently with its torqued rotation. The corks leapt upwards out of my hands and I heard a curse and looked Starboard. Where the netting close to the heavy leads had been yanked by the prop, Javier’s fists were clenched and tangled. The slipping faultline in the lead-filled net sliced three of his fingers off at the knuckles instantly, and they fell silently into The Sea.
Blood spurted from three places in his shredded gloves and he stared at his hands dumbly and then stared overboard where his fingers had sunk, as if to mark the place and retrieve them later. The Sea was gray and dark for leagues in all directions save our little churning orbit of FishandManblood and the metallic scales of a swarming purse of dying salmon that intended to murder us in turn with their unthinking immensity. I left the corks where they hung and ran into the cabin to tell the Captain to cut power to the prop. The Sea had preceded me into the cabin, three inches of water already filling the bow where we slept and the Captain stared at me quietly. Javier DeJesus began to scream outside and Chava said there weren’t enough survival suits for everyone because The Sounder had always gone without a webber there were only four stored instead of five. The Captain sat mute and frowning and stared out the portal to the deck. Then he slowly picked up the VHF and called in the mayday. We each knew that he’d waited so long because more than half our crew was illegal and should we survive there would be questions.
The Captain came ondeck and threw a survival suit at each of the four of us and stood silently in the doorway of the cabin wet up to his shins from the Sea without a suit left for him. I quickly unfurled mine and stepped into it and Chava too. The glowing orange thick rubber suits help you float but more importantly they keep you warm because even in the summer this far North the frigid water kills you in half the time it would take you to drown and these thick suits might keep us alive if anybody came to find us but made us clumsy with big paws. Javier DeJesus couldn’t get his on with one hand and Lucio was a hundred pounds past ever being able to fit into his and Chava and I stood stupidly half in and half out of our suits trying to help Javier DeJesus tourniquet his knuckles with little bits of pencil and place his shaking legs into the thick rubber leggings of his GumbySuit.
And you think when you watch so many films like we do that when you are faced with your death you’ll think of your Mother or you Wife or your God but all I could think was that this was Such Horsecock and that I still hadn’t done anything I wanted to yet. And tens of thousands of dollars worth of wasted fish would surround me dead in the water which irritated me even more and today makes me feel rather transparent and coarse. We think that we will be fearful or awed or with luck even meditative at death but to my surprise I was just so angry, and I still today don’t know what that means. And anyway I didn’t die, and I should try harder not to exaggerate.
Lucio came aboard and with his knife he began to cut the belly of the purse and yelled at us to do the same and we all set upon the net with our blades and tried to free ourselves from our murderer ballast and we swore and rended net and tore apart the infrastructure of our wealth and the fish began to slowly slip the purse and rejoin the open Sea. And in one great moment the purse doubled up on itself and we lost all the fish, and many of them already dead and no good to anybody and wasted. Even finally free of the Deathpurse The Sounder lay too far into the water to be saved and we all watched quietly in the way a man can see something he’s worked to build return to Oblivion for nothing. Because that which he built drug him down, and he in his greed waited too long to shed himself of it and is no less doomed by his tardy emancipation.
The Coast Guard heard the call but The Dolphin heard us first and found us floundered in water and called off the mayday. She tied up where the skiff had been Portside and pulled with her giant diesel and we used both bilges one on siphon and every bucket and took the next ten hours with two crews in the pissing storm to finally empty the ship. We lost the entire hold, worth more than two years salary in the little towns Chava and Lucio come from. We threw every dead fish out by hand lest they clog the bilge, cut the net from the prop, and ran it clean in reverse. It stormed still all the way home but now we were empty and the net as shredded as Javier DeJesus’ hands and thirtytwo hours after setting out the Deathpurse and fifty since we’d last slept we limped into Alitak where the mailplane whisked the injured man off to Town.
Lucio fed Javier DeJesus a ShitTon of whiskey and though it thins the blood and seems counterintuitive Javier seemed thankful for it and spoke little in his double stupor. The Captain spoke to no one that evening and he walked up the hill to use the Cannery’s phone to call his wife and Lucio also made a call somewhere but Chava and I had no one and as soon as we were tied in I slept fifteen hours straight curled in a knot on the kitchen table since my bunk was still wet from the Sea.
Javier DeJesus left straight from Providence Kodiak Hospital a week after the Sea swallowed his fingers: finally a Man amongst his uncles with his phantom digits though he would not see his clan for a decade more to compare, as El Maldito General Agosto took longer than anyone would have thought to die peacefully in his bed and let Chile’s unclaimed grandsons come home. Two days without Javier DeJesus and we all knew we’d gone soft without our overwrought meals and extra webber. Chava smiled his strained convict’s smile as he pulled the leads and I tried to stack the corks right but the second time the webbing took half the corkstack into the Sea with it and we lost the set the Captain grew flustered and traded the Miss Palomar’s captain two ounces of Chava’s weed and a twohundreddollar credit at the Cannery Store for his webber, who had been causing problems beyond his benefit.
Twentyone and full of tattoos our webber first ignored me and the Captain but began bullying his fellow Mexicans. He insisted that his name be El Chilango and threw complicated signs with his fingers that though Hollywood had not yet digested enough to prostitute and make familiar to me seemed to belong to some form of organized crime. My Spanish still barely nascent I believed the apodo El Chilango to translate roughly as Badass from the Deh Effe but his tattoos and floppytilted stocking cap failed to impress Lucio who called him El Pitufo all his days, which I’m fairly certain means the Little Smurf. He swore and threatened and gave his best at intimidation but Lucio was not a man of Men but a man of the Sea and no amount of human tantrum can shake a soul acquainted with the tempests of a world that floats perilously in water. Chava had seen his likes before in his winter home and avoided him as best a man can on a thirtytwofoot craft but Lucio ridiculed him openly first day on the web, catcalling him as he came in on his skiff to tie the purse and telling him to shoot his handmade gun at the fish if they didn’t give him enough respect. In the first week I didn’t see it but Chava said El Pitufo pulled a knife on Lucio and the old fat man grabbed his knife and threw it in the Sea but didn’t raise a hand against the boy. Chava said they came to an understanding and after that Lucio let off on him but ran their rank on the ship and Chava started the cooking. Like with everything else he went after the new task cheerfully and tirelessly but it would never measure up to Javier DeJesus’ and in the absence of anything else a man’s meal can affect his morale, and I was ready for the season to end.
After the Deathpurse we stayed out to Sea six straight weeks. The Captain didn’t want to go back until we’d surpassed every pound of fish we’d wasted and then he didn’t want to go back until the wind turned and then he didn’t want to go back at all. My Spanish improved incrementally all season but El Pitufo and I almost came to blows at the netting once because he kept saying Presta Atenciòn which might mean Pay Attention but really Presta Tensiòn which just means Pull. And no matter who the Captain was screaming at he screamed at me.
Tell that goddammoron to lay the goddamleads in a tightfuckingeight.
And I would translate
The Captain thinks it would be easier if you stacked the leads in tighter eightloops
And through the cranking gears of the boom and the pounding rain El Pitufo would scream
Eso NO dijò El pinche Capitan. Dile chupa mi verga ese pinche cabròn.
And I would tell the Captain El Pitufo agreed that might work and said he would try harder and nobody believed me but midset is too fragile a time to bring it to a beating so they just swore at each other through me and stared.
And Chava never got to see his little Cannery princess and the cabin grew smaller and smaller. On one of the processors there was a woman, a septuagenarian cook named Rosa and for little trinkets or cash you could drop your drys off with her and come back next delivery she’d have them washed and pressed for you and she’d chat you up in stunted English or matronly Spanish and she was clean as the clothes she returned which made us all the more conscious of our filth. And though I had no spending money I boarded the processor one day when we delivered there just to hear her voice and I was not alone. Six weeks is the longest I’ve ever gone without seeing or speaking to a woman, and the psychological effects of such a stretch are singularly debilitating. Every fisherman on a long haul would dally to chat with Rosa, and even Brutes and Thieves and men who have committed Evil Acts brought her little gifts and called her Señora Rosa and we all felt the more human for it. For though it is true many a man has behaved poorly towards or in the presence of women it is truer still that nowhere does Man make more a Beast of himself than in their prolonged absence.
And in the night I dreamed horrid dreams of being caught in nets, claustrophobic dreams where a man has all the Sea to contend with but must step on his thirtytwofoot craft alone, the miniaturizations of space within immensity and nowhere to stand and always that cold green Sea to swallow you whole if you misstep. Once I awoke at the bottom of the bow below the lower bunks writhing in the panic of invisible netting that was simply my sleeping bag, thrashing at my death and entrapment, awakened by the twin swats of the Mexicans: El Pitufo laughing at my softness, silent Lucio having seen it untold times before.
We’d spent two days at Eagle Rock and were fished out. No Lineup. The Diana C was the only other vessel in the bay. The sun shone all day and the Captain tied The Sounder up to the other ship’s Starboard and played cribbage with their Captain. The Diana C was fortyfoot and had a functional head and even a television and a sort of couch, and the two crews began watching movies that none of the Mexicans could understand by enjoyed anyway. A teenage Yup’ik corker named Herman Nuqalpiak unhitched their skiff and invited us to go ashore, and El Pitufo and I sat low in the tiny metal craft. The green of Kodiak is dense and high, almost impassable in its interlocking roots, so we tread crouching on the game trails and along the creek beds in our boots and wandered in the rare sun. Herman looked at the shotgun on my back.
Why’d you bring that?
Slugs in there?
You should saw the ends off it.
So it doesn’t hurt so much when the bear shoves it up your ass.
And I stared at the handcannon strapped to his chest and wondered at its caliber but didn’t ask. El Pitufo bushwacked through the alder and scraped his arms, came back grinning with a deer antler to show us. He made a sort of spear and carried it with him. El Pitufo had never once in his life gone beyond the borders of his Mexico City before this trip to Kodiak. He volunteered this information but not how he came to be here. The forest too hard to navigate we skipped rocks on the beach and warmed ourselves shirtless in the sun. For the first time I saw El Pitufo’s collage of tattoos: full of violence and religion, Virgen Guadalupes and guns and skulls vying for space around an expansive scar on both his chest and back from some unstoried wound, giant gothic letters of his tribe on his stomach, a sloppy crucifix on his thumb. He challenged Herman and I to a foot race that turned into five, the three of us sprinting in the sun and beginning to sweat despite the cool air, chests heaving and teeth showing and then contests of jumping off a rock into the freezing water which couldn’t make itself seem of the same family as the Sea we worked upon. There is the fatigue of man’s work but it is separate and distinct from the grinning exhaustion of men who still have boy left within them finding Release, making amends to those aspects of their natures they have neglected out of necessity and obligation.
We sunned ourselves vainly on the shore. At the bay’s point there was a setnet: A net without a ship to mind it that perhaps some family from Akhiok had left there to catch the tides, a thing to be left alone and collected at intervals by souls far away. It seemed out of place, this wall of net held by two factory pink buoys so far from any other sign of Man. A sea lion was in the process of poaching it. A giant mammal, full of fat and shine and teeth, three times the weight of a man and with an opportunistic intelligence. The net was full of salmon caught by their gills from the tide and the sea lion ate only the gutpack of each salmon, chewing the eggs and ruining the salmon, one bite out of each fish and wasting the rest, feasting on the easy pickings of delicacy. The haul would be worthless, unsellable. Even for Subsistence it would be marginal. Herman stood and walked out to the rocks slowly, stood on the farthest rock a mere fifteen feet from the immense beast and calmly aimed his handcannon at its head, squinting in the sun, waiting patiently for it to show him the back of its ear. It stared up at him lazily, drunk on calories and king of its domain.
Oyeoye no despagues guey
El Pitufo running to the point, shouting and flailing his arms. They stood on the rock together, out of my range of hearing. Herman spoke no Spanish and El Pitufo no English. They gesticulated in exaggerated signs to present their opinions. Herman raised his weapon again and El Pitufo again shouted. Some manner of agreement must have been reached, for the gun again lowered. The two sat slowly on the rock, watching the beast. It returned to its gluttony. I joined them on the outcrop and we watched silently for half an hour. Though we sat almost close enough to jump on its back, it ignored us. The beautiful, stinking thing rolled in its luck, flowing with grace and absentminded cruelty amongst its trapped prey, eating them alive. The horn from the ships finally sounding us back from shore, back to the work of men.
The sets formed into days and the days in turn into months and one day we’d reached the season’s poundage sufficient in the Captain’s ledger and we abruptly turned North and made for Town. We come into Port and the Captain pays El Pitufo, Lucio and me on the docks. Chava stays on for another two weeks to handle The Sounder’s affairs before headed back to jail. He stands up from spraying out the hold and takes his slimy glove off and shakes my hand from down there, then puts his glove back on and goes back to spraying. The Captain gives us our cash in heavy envelopes and it’s bad manners to count it in front of each other but no amount of bills has ever weighed that much in my hand and suddenly I can’t remember being wet or cold or exhausted or fired.
Thanks for the work, Captain.
You know how to get to the airport?
When yer screwin all them college girls like in the magazines you just think of all us fishermen that have to actually work for a goddam living. And then screw harder. Bank’s up the ramp and across the square. You get stabbed between here and there it’s not my job to reimburse you. You put that money someplace safe and you get South, Fisher.
And he walked Portside aboard the Miss Rachel and ducked into the cabin where a poker game between captains ended the season as was tradition. The Mexicans and I walked up the ramp from the docks. My bank is at the end of the town square and to get there you must pass the PokerGame and three Bars and the WorkingGirls and when I look back cross the square from the front door of the bank I realize that I am alone. And I expect they go back to their routines. Chava peacefully to his cell and Lucio to his rotating ports and wives in shifts and then back out to Sea and the Captain to his wife and his sons and El Pitufo signed on for cannery work even though he has plenty of money to go home with. I alone with nowhere to be.
And a FirsttimeRich man with no debts and no one waiting for him onshore wears a special grin indeed, for he is rare amongst men upon this earth, and rare even unto the inevitable arc of his own life. And I fly South without spending even a single night in Town and the Mountains from the window have changed none at all.