The Sea South of Kodiak Island
#2.1 in the Gap Decade Chronicles
From the window of the airplane, Southern Kodiak Island has that inimitable look of land we haven’t gotten around to yet. Nobody’s bothered to build a road or a mine or a telephone pole and no goats or sheep or cows exist to graze the thick alder away and the deer are so brave you could hunt just by waiting patiently with a carrot in the barrel. And even the Natives and even when there were more of them tended to tread more lightly on their land than most and also tended to be more interested in the Sea or at least the coast so there’s no stone temples buried in the mountains that I can think of. And we latecomers no different with our canneries and seafoodprocessors: if not for them there’d be no little mailplane Cessna TwoOSeven bothering to fly me over the mountains to Alitak looking out the window at the untouched greenness, trying to spy a deer or the peculiar Kodiak Bear, the biggest carnivore that walks the earth.
Alitak sounds like a village name with its ancient efficient syllables and –ak suffix but there’s no village here, just the Cannery and a dock and a little dirt airstrip nobody but the mailman uses because even if Kodiak is bigger than some whole countries it’s still an island and most people come by boat, motoring into the network of large bays on the OnehundredfiftyMile trip from Town and swinging into the little lagoon past the giant lifesize HOLLYWOOD sign somebody put up on the mountainside above the Cannery. The sign seems like a lot of sweat and effort for irony in this uninhabited place but it lends a fisherman a chuckle and later nostalgia, perched as it is on a cliff at the edge of the world. The mailplane is my fifth flight in twentyfour hours: Denver-Seattle-Anchorage-Kodiak(Town)-Alitak, each plane getting smaller and less formal, with me finally sitting in the copilot seat in the little TwoOseven smaller than a minivan and a loaded shotgun clipped to the floor and the back filled with a bunch of soda pop that somebody’d mailed to the general store at the Cannery.
And the Mountains here look like their cousins the Chugach back in Anchorage: proud and green and sharp but I can tell the difference somehow — the Chugach eyeing me superciliously through the window of the jet on the Anchorage tarmac the day before saying What are You doing back here so soon? — so I feel judged and a failure and stare at my book and fly on. And today in Kodiak these Sugpiaq peaks are just as disinterested and stoic but with no questions for me on their greengray faces, resting as they do and staring at the Sea out of habit, silently boasting over its inability to swallow them.
I help the pilot unload the TwoOseven and walk in the drizzle past the bulk fuel tanks big as buildings and take a right at the Cannery offices out over the filmy grey Sea, the maze of piers with bulging warehouses built over them twisting like a floating factory and everybody shouting at each other in the varying languages of the Pacific: CollegesummerBreak English in the front of the house and Samoan on the forklifts and Tagalog on the GutLine and Japanese holding the clipboards shouting orders and Korean in the EggRoom until I reach the end of the operation and descend the steep low tide ramp to the docks where the languages peter out and die until only English in accents ranging from Anacortes to Alutiiq are left (Because the Mexicans haven’t gotten here yet) and the fishing vessels are lined up tied together in waiting for the Opening, still a week away.
My uncle got me a spot as a hand on a salmon seiner docked out of Alitak called The Sounder. Ship’s names are always capitalized, and to further convey their importance, they’re italicized too, even if the ship is just an old thirtytwofoot wooden seiner with no toilet and no television and not enough room for a four-man crew to stand up at once in the cabin, and four bunks up in the bow so tight that a man laying on his back would knock his head on the bunk above if he sneezed in his sleep. No books either, only a magazine rack just big enough to hold three issues of The Economist and two of Penthouse. Journalism also being a member of the DoubleEmphasis club. The Sounder is not a typical name for a boat. Generally they’re named after women. Women’s names get capitals but not italics, but boats named after women get both, so if you name your boat after your wife she gets into the italics club by association, which is an honor. But the Captain didn’t call his boat by a woman’s name, and he didn’t let me call his ship a boat. A Ship is a Vessel is a Craft but don’t goddam call Her a boat. A ship also gets feminine pronouns. These are the first things you learn onboard The Sounder: that you are not on a boat, that She is a Ship, and you are not splicing rope all day, you are splicing Line. You are on a Ship, splicing Line, all damn day. And scraping barnacles. Sailors have no special nomenclature for barnacles so that was the only thing I didn’t get wrong my first day.
I asked my uncle to get me a spot on a ship because I needed money but that’s probably not why he agreed. There’s no reason for him to care if I had money or not because nobody did and they all turned out fine. He likely agreed to get me the spot because he knew that I was soft, and hoped that the Sea would help harden me up a bit, as the oilfields had for him. So he called up the Captain whom he used to be tight with back in the Alaska Pipeline Days. I imagine their talk likely went something like this:
Captain, I got this boy and he’s soft. Give him a spot on your boat for me, eh?
It’s a goddam Ship, Charlie.
Give him a spot on your ship, then.
Fishing’s not for the soft.
Fire him if it doesn’t work out. Gettin fired helps a soft boy too.
So the Captain gave me a spot and fired me too, multiple times, and I’ve my uncle to thank for that.
And now pack in hand I board The Sounder and introduce myself to the Captain. He comes out of the little cabin and gives me a once over and then doesn’t look at me any more. Stares out to Sea. Maybe because It’s why we’re all here or maybe because he learned all he needed from me in a glance or maybe both and he says
Your uncle and me had some times. We ran freight up the Haul Road to the North Slope back in the days when they were shittin money to get the oil out of the ground. Five years until the rush was over and the Pipeline was finished. Last time I worked on land. Back then Fairbanks was tiny and the Teamsters ran the whole town like mafia. All the women were fat and you couldn’t find a decent cup of coffee anywhere. Went back there last year and the whole place’d changed, couldn’t recognize almost anything. Looks like America. You grow up there?
Some and some.
So your uncle could work. But he tired easy on long hauls. I used to have to throw his freight for him while he slept on the two day trips so we could make our turnarounds, and I did it because he’s saved me in a pinch and because I could. You look small like him. Can you work? If you can’t I’ll send you back on the mailplane and hire a Mexican for halfprice that can do twice the work of your generation. You pull corks. Corks go on the top. Leads on the bottom. This is a FourMan crew and I don’t need no webber so that’s the best you get. I give greenhorns six percent. If you can work like your uncle I’ll give you seven. If you can cook, you get an extra one percent of the ship’s total take. If you can’t cook don’t you lie to me because we’re out there two weeks at a stretch and shitty food will ruin a crew. Your uncle says you know some Spanish. If you can translate I’ll give you one extra percent and I’ll hire sumathem when they come to port. No girls on the ship and if you get seasick first day and I lose the Opening your uncle owes me every cent I missed and you can work that out with him. We clear?
Have the New Yorker there show you what needs doing. Bottom Starboard bunk is yours. Cannery serves dinner at seventhirty.
And although he didn’t leave he’d said all he needed and kept his stance looking at the Sea, drinking hot tea that steamed out his mug. He dipped his cantilevered mustache into the liquid as he drank and then wrapped his bottom lip up over it to suck all the tea out, then stroked his mustache with his hand and in turn wiped his hand on his fleece pants. The whole operation commenced anew with each sip. I put my pack in the tiny bunk up in the bow hoping I had Starboard straight (right when looking forward, left when looking back) and looked to hear my chores.
The New Yorker was almost as young as I but looked much older and cooler, black goatee and curly hair and the sunglasses you see people wear on television. He’d gotten here honestly: no uncle connection and no savings just him and a backpack and a week sleeping in Tent City in Town before the Captain picked him up and traveled down to Alitak a couple weeks ago. Props go to the hardy traveler that braves the uncertainties of employment and walks the docks looking for work, and my second-hand nepotism was a dishonorable way to start an adventure so I kept quiet on how I came to be a hand upon The Sounder. The New Yorker read a ratty paperback with no cover that looked like he’d been through it a couple times and had brought with him a whole box full of recorded cassette tapes untold miles to this Northern edge of the world. Hardly any were music but most were recordings of some radio show where a guy interviews people and jokes about current events. About half the shows were interviews with a supermodel or a pornstar where the interviewer gets her to take her top off and talks about sleeping with her in great detail, which I didn’t think translated very well to radio but the New Yorker thought was hilarious. He played it on The Sounder’s intercom system until the Captain yelled TurnthatgoddamshitOff and then he used his little cassette walkman while we painted the deck, sometimes chuckling to himself and letting me put the headphones to my ear to catch a witticism.
For a week we painted, scraped, and washed. In the evening they served dinner at the Cannery but the fishermen weren’t allowed to eat until all the operation’s workers had eaten and left. We gathered after the last one left each day and made sure very little went to waste, and the cod at the end of the pier took care of the rest. There’s no garbage service in Alitak so the Cannery’s benevolence was in their best interest but they were strict on not having a fisherman show up before their workers had left the warehouse. I slept in the bow of The Sounder and the rest of us too. The Captain barely able to fit in there, his crown and footsoles touched the opposing ends of the sleeping cubby. And you could hear the Sea lapping against the bow through the wood and the first night I couldn’t sleep at all from the Beauty of it but soon it helped calm me down to rest after the long workdays. The nights were peaceful and I slept thickly and the days were cool but sunny and I stayed out of the Captain’s way and did chores as the New Yorker assigned them. We sat in the half impotent Northern sun and finished the deck in black paint with little chips of grip in it so it wouldn’t be slippery and he showed me I’d gotten the wrong boots because mine were the old black and orange kinds but everybody in Alitak had the nice brownyellow ExtraTuffs that even came with steel toes if you want them and I went up to the Cannery Store to see about getting some but they were too dear. I resolved to buy some on credit if I made it through the Opening because the New Yorker told me that fishermen hate poseurs and if I didn’t want any trouble I’d need to start looking like one of them. It stung and I thought even Out Here where men come deliberately to live outside civilized society’s bullshit hierarchies we just end up creating new hierarchies based on tenure and perceived authenticity and I wondered if it’s just in us like pack animals, and I get lost thinking about these things but it’s mistrustful to be silent when you’re working so I say
What’s New York City like?
It’s the greatest city in the world.
Must make it hard to leave.
Yeah, Chief. For sure. Some people never do. There are seriously people that live their whole lives without ever leaving the Five Boroughs.
What are the Five Boroughs?
Are you serious? New York is divided into five boroughs. Have you ever traveled?
I went to Colorado, and I’ll go farther than that soon as I’m done fishing. It costs a lot to get out.
That’s another reason New York is so tight. The whole world wants to go there, so you can go anywhere you want. Every day there’s a plane leaving New York for every country in the world. And whenever you want, there’s a plane going back. So you can go anywhere.
And you chose Alitak.
And I chose Alitak.
And he handrolled his cigarette with a pouch of tobacco he kept in his armygreen coat. He didn’t smoke it but rolled it meticulously in his lap over his jeans and put it in his chest pocket.
I maxed out my credit card to get here. It’s wild, man. Just woke up one day and said I’m gonna go be a fisherman in Alaska, make like Ten Grand, go on to Phuket and dive and smoke mad bowls, live the dream, you know. Didn’t have a dime, tons of student loan debt, hangin out with losers in Brooklyn; everything’s the same: same shows, same parties, same shit. But ALASKA man, that’s wild. Come back to town with cash money and those rich girls will want me to buy them drinks and I’ll just say screw them and grab my boys and we’ll go to Ibiza and party until we can’t stand up anymore.
And I had no reason to doubt his plan and still a little sheepish about not knowing there were Five Boroughs plus never even been to a Show and all so I painted the deck in silence and he listening to his radio tapes on cassette. The gulls knew better than to land on the fresh paint but they circled greedily around the Cannery men at the end of the pier fishing for cod on their breaks. Strange that even though we’re all about to fish for four straight months, with nothing else to do on a summer day the men would rather be fishing off the pier and releasing the ugly things back to the gulls, and even if I didn’t have to paint the deck I doubt I’d choose that but would instead pick a peak in this little cirque and get a view of all this, so maybe I’m no fisherman or maybe it’s learned. Hard to say. But the mountains would take half a day and even with the long Northern summer light we worked too late to even start an ascent, and a quick two days later the Mexicans came and day after that we left for the Opening, and the poor New Yorker left ashore tragically.
The Mexicans came all at once like it was tradition. The mailplane did two extra routes to make the cash and a ship showed up from Town precisely timed and they strode purposefully and easily past the sweating bloody cannery workers down the slight high-tide ramp and the docks were theirs. Their bags were half the volume of mine and none seemed intent on appearing more fishermanlike footwear be damned and some even wore cowboy boots and one fat bald one the color of a LifetimeintheSun wore spotless white jeans and Australian elastic-sided work boots shined with love and walked straight up to the Captain and smiled and pointed at the letters of The Sounder on the stern and then at himself and spoke in Spanish.
Ask him if he’ll work aboard, the Captain said.
¿Quiéres trabajar con nosotros?
And he replied Si comoambola lo estabosuelden tempanablabla far too fast for me and he could tell my Spanish was elementary and slow so he simply said -Sì- and the Captain smiled under his mustache at me though I’d helped none at all but in his mind I’d earned another one percent. And he says
Grassias, Lucio. Good to see you. You can be Skiff.
Tambien amigoble enaliagobenspano, Lucio says, looking me in the eye. A man in his twenties stands behind him in jeans and a white Teeshirt, and another slightly older with a beard. I do not respond. So he tries again
¿Heem and heem too? And looks at the Captain.
Them too, the Captain says back to me.
Ellos tambìen, I say. And Lucio smiles. But the New Yorker does not. They go inside and ditch their duffels and they begin to work without being asked or told. Coiling rope, taking stock, bringing aboard a hose and checking the motor of the skiff attached to the aft of the ship. The New Yorker tugs my shoulder conspiratorially.
The Captain’s gonna fuck us, Fisher.
You’ve been in the cabin a week, chief. There’s only four bunks. There’s no webber. The Captain’s had us do all the shit work and soon as all these halfprice guys get here he’ll fire us with no compensation and leave us. He eyed the other men on the docks chatting easily with the other crews, duffels still in hands.
I earned this post and I’m gonna keep it. My parents would love for me to fail at this and have to ask them for money. They’d LOVE it, the bastards. I’ve got bullshit nothing for cash and I need this summer. Nobody steals my spot. Better watch your ass, Fisher. I’ll watch mine.
And he set to work with renewed vigor, going to the Cannery to get the last grocery order and bringing it back on the dolly but by then the tide had shifted and the ramp too steep so he tied each individual box ParcelLike and handlowered it sweating and swearing and once the knot gave and crushed the box but luckily nothing in it and when I offered to help he shooed me angrily and when the youngest Mexican came he pushed him in the chest. And me with no knowledge of what way I could be of use I asked the Captain for tasks but he read his magazine and drank his tea and said StayouttathegoddamCabin and I slept laboriously despite the lapping of the Sea against the wooden hull. Lucio snored bullhornloud below and his companions our replacements slept outdoors on the top deck and once in the night I went to piss up the hill at the Cannery and coming back saw the New Yorker’s eyes wide open in the night, lying on his back awake, headphones on and listening to his shows but the laughter was not with him.
The day before the Opening most everybody’d been hired save a couple ships and a few GutLine workers came sulking up the fleet looking for last minute spaces that might improve their lot but secretively since the Cannery’d fire them for asking and many pretenses were made to come to the docks, three times as many men taking their fifteenminute breaks to fish for cod off the pier and listen to passing fisherman talk of spots but by the noon the ships began to distractedly unhook themselves from one another and make their way past the Southern point of Kodiak Island and out to Sea and Lucio told any preguntores our ship was full so’s best I could hear. Finally the Captain walks out ondeck with the New Yorker’s duffel in hand already packed and throws it on the docks and hands him two hundred dollars and tells him to unhook us from the moorings. He stands nipple-to-eye on the lad and even taller on me a rock of a man with his eyes hidden behind his polarized glasses and his hand out holding cash no expression or Thankyou just an order as is his vocation and I think the New Yorker might take a swing but only until I look at him and he is beaten. And he takes the cash but sits on the dock obstinately and Lucio whistles and unties the moorings. We break from our portside partner the Miss Rachel and the Captain climbs up top and puts his hat on and the movement of the ship makes me feel the cold wet air for the first time. I am still in fleeceandhoodie and the Mexicans are already changing into their wets and I want to look worth the work so I do too — clumsily with the deck moving out from under me.
There is no way not to steal glances back at the docks. For my uncle got me this gig I didn’t earn it and the Captain hasn’t yet learned that my Spanish is shit and I still don’t know how soft I am but this man spent all he had and too much he didn’t to come four thousand miles to be here and twohundred dollars isn’t even enough to hire the mailman to bring you back to Town and Please God don’t let me be the type that gets seasick because though we are far from shore already I can tell from the heaving shoulders that on the docks a grown man braver than I sits crying. And we go to Sea.
Chava lived in a jail somewhere in Sinaloa, and though it’s bad manners to ask a convict how he came to be in the càrcel if they haven’t shared of their own accord, whatever it was had kept him there three years before I met him and five years after. Each summer his warden let him out two weeks before salmon season and he hitched the tuna and then the cod ships north to end up in Kodiak in time for the Opening. He fished hard and bought cocaine off the Salvadoreño in the Cannery to stay awake as long as possible and pulled leads which is harder than corks and he never complained but smiled through the pissing storms and burly Sea and laughed with the docksmen over dice and even slept with a seventeen-year-old Native girl named Ilene Simonokoff that worked up at the Cannery, meeting her in a secret spot behind the water tank up the hill on rare sunny days we were in port. He stayed longer than any of us and helped the Captain drydock the ship at the end of the season then made his way back South and paid half his earnings to his warden and sat down in his cell to pass the autumn winter and spring quietly.
Why don’t you just stay? Why go back? I say.
¿Por què no quedas aquì?
Ellos conocen a mi familia.
And I suppose in a place that small everybody knows your clan and you’d have to worry about all those you left behind. It’d be hard on your mother if you skipped town like a defector but nobody needs money in jail anyway so you could give half to your warden and half to your family and get four months off your incarceration as your sentence eroded away each year. And never doubt that no matter the level of fatigue we endured and the worthless waterhauls that came to naught and the Captain’s cursings, Chava ever bore the grin of a man conscious of what Time should mean to a Mortal.
Javier DeJesus ran webbing and made near nothing for it as this was his first season like me. He earned his percent of the take cooking and any beast that came from the purse over the boom that wasn’t profitable or endangered and thus subject to fine he could take and manifest a genius into and we ate well round our tiny table in the galley. And it’s a dirty secret but many fishermen in Kodiak put steak on their plates out at Sea but Javier DeJesus took pride in the detritus of the ocean and only bothered with the Cannery Store for spices and potatoes and staples. On the docks they’re all called Mexicans out of habit and indifference and simplicity but Javier DeJesus came from Chile whence his father the university professor had fled the coup and moved to Quito, sending for his family later. I asked which coup and he raised his eyes but didn’t bother and instead fed me flan made from scratch in the TensquareFoot space of a kitchen that encompassed his days. He was the only one of them that could grow a full beard and had fair skin and told stories of the lovely freckled women of Patagonia with names like Juanita O’Driscoll that he’d someday love when El Maldito General Agosto died like a dog for his sins and he could go Home. His father alone had fled and his uncles who had nothing to fear stayed for they did manual labor and those of strong backs are seldom run off with the intelligentsia when they can be of use to whoever steals power from the last. Javier DeJesus spited his father for the impetus of their exile and turned from his studies early to work with his hands. His uncles had been carpenters full of bold calluses and ghostly missing digits from the inevitable probabilities of sawblades and Javier thought them worth the surname as Jesus had been a carpenter but his father snorted and said Jesus was the Messiah and that carpentry was just a hobby (which he probably didn’t even believe because he was a Communist). And Javier instead turned to fishing and found his way North to us. There were only four bunks and he slept on a camping mat underneath the kitchen table and was no more fit for a life at Sea than I but enjoyed it nonetheless for its familial rebellion. For though his father hadn’t slept soundly since ‘SeventyThree Javier DeJesus lay down each night full of work and spent muscles and slept dreamlessly from the moment he closed his eyes, which alone made him smugly happy with his choices, floating on the North Pacific.
Of the five of us (the Captain included) Lucio was the only man aboard The Sounder who would fish all of his days and knew almost nothing else. He ran a proud and unenviable migration from tuna to blackcod to herring to salmon to pollock and crab and back to tuna and he’d stood on ships of every flag and had walked the docks in Papeete and Dakar and Dutch Harbor and Saint George and was much respected by the other captains who shook their heads and whistled at the steal the Captain had gotten him for. By his own telling he held wives in Sonora and Busan and Los Angeles and Kiribus and a mistress in Recife all of whom he wired money and had left seed but little else. If you added the seasons together and considered the precious few days of the year left to walk the land you wondered if this could possibly be true but among mariners The Truth is not as important as The Telling and anyway a man has the right and duty to craft the mythology of his own life. The Captain may well have loved his own authority but he loved his money more and often asked Lucio’s opinion through me when we’d gone longer than he cared without luck. Lucio fixed anything broken between sets and sat out calmly in the rain on his skiff with his own thoughts and brought his own peppers up with him in a jar and more were waiting for him at the Cannery Post Office when we came to port sent no doubt from his disparate women. They were tiny shriveled and luminescent forms of orange and yellow and Offlimits to Javier DeJesus’ recipes and Lucio ate with his fork in his right hand and a pepper in his left, biting it slowly as he ate from the plate in shifts and sweat beaded on his forehead. Once he offered a pair of Alutiiq boys no older than thirteen each one hundred dollars cash if they could eat one of his chilis whole. They tried bravely but soon cried and wailed and ate the dirt and the alder in the absence of anything to alleviate their virgin palates and Lucio laughed himself to tears at their softness and even Chava giggled though Javier DeJesus scolded them in Spanish. Our next stint at port in the evening as we dined at the Cannery those same boys snuck aboard The Sounder and sprinkled desiccated powdered remains of stinging jellyfish in all Javier’s spice jars and once again out at Sea we sat to eat tired and damp and famished only to ingest a thousand burning stingers that coated our mouths and throats and bellies — and that I could drink the Great Stinking Ocean to ease the pain and we missed two days work to burning vomit and contortions. The Captain never learned why but the Mexicans commiserated to make peace and gave the boys a bottle of vodka bought at a hundred dollars a halfliter from the Salvadoreño and they never bothered us again.
Lucio was near bald and past fat and he waddled on land but never seemed to need to steady himself in the thrashing Sea though I often stumbled about and the others too and the Captain had the wheel to hold onto but Lucio stood the storms scratching his ample belly with none of the complex vectors of the Ocean affecting his relationship to gravity and we admired him openly for it and he knew it. He taught me to mend net and complimented Javier’s cooking but critiqued his dishwashing and sat out separate from us on the set as we hustled in the rain, alone with his thoughts in the skiff on the end of the net a man apart, and what he thought about out there none knew for it is not seemly to speak of your private thoughts in these harsh circles unless drunk, and even then seldom and with apologies and likely violence.
Openings come in two varieties: the Lineup and the Freeforall. The Lineup is a civilized affair where the ships go to where the fish are and queue up to wait a turn as the tides turn right. The Lineup is an ancient formality and taken seriously amongst the Captains for though little discussion took place over the VHF radio all knew where they stood after a few quick sentences and I never once saw the Lineup broken. Salmon head to the mouths of rivers according to the tides and their own inner clocks and there’s little time the fishing is awful enough to stop save the high and low where nothing moves, so the Lineup flows organically as ships come and go and try their luck elsewhere and when your turn comes you are suddenly a part of the Captain’s pride because the entire Lineup watches your set to pit their luck against your luck, their skill against your skill, and though you be here for but a season the Captain has the Great Laws of Averages to account for his successes and failures, which makes him vain and grim in his hustle and screaming.
The net of a salmon seiner is two things in succession: a Wall and a Purse, and must flow easily from one form to another. The top edge of the wall is full of cork and the bottom edge is full of lead and the heavy side will always sink and the buoyant side will always float and unless your deckhands can’t stack for shit the sides will never be tangled and will find their straightness in the Sea as is their purpose. A tiny metal skiff holds one end of the net and the mother ship the other and a long arc is made against the tide, a hundred feet or more to catch all those little homewardbound bastards standing between you and your Money on their journey no man is strong enough to make. At an indeterminable moment in accordance of the rules of the Lineup the skiff takes its end and slowly turns the arc into a circle in the Sea, passing under the ship’s stern and closing the leads underneath so there is no longer any escape. The purse encompasses any fish unwilling to test the other world of air and sky and jump over the corks that surround it, and the Captain mans the boom and cinches the purse until it is a tight teeming ball of panicked fish, crushed against each other in a massive school of death, hoisted up in the air and emptied into the hold to be cooled and transported to market. The corks and leads are stacked methodically port and starboard, and the starboard leans slightly seaward from the weight. The restack guarantees the clean wall which guarantees the clean purse which guarantees the Money and never separate a fisherman from his money or the screams come followed by the fists.
In a Freeforall Opening there is no chivalry and no honorable tradition. A wealthy spot is opened for a finite amount of time and captains pull their netlengths in to a mere forty feet to catch the bounty in tight quarters. Captains block each other’s sets, steal them, swear threats and oaths on the VHF Radio and scream from their bows. The ships themselves look like the pulsing death of Man in the purse of a tiny cove of wealth, chasing, escaping, trampling each other in their panic and adrenaline like some Escher lithograph of mirrored carnages. I sweat and hurt and burn and the Captain can be sonarly situated from his obscenities and Lucio holds out the line from the intentions of competitors and keeps our set safe from pilfering and fills our purse with the sets of others and we fill so heavy in the hold during the Freeforall Opening of Humpy Cove that The Sounder lay less than a foot on the water and I make more money than my first four summer jobs combined in three hours and grin and lick my lips of salt and sweat and guts unashamed in my avarice.
And I did not get seasick. And I did not lose the Opening. And though I was fired the second day on account of mistying some new unknown knot on the end of a line, the two weeks at Sea eroded the Captain’s memory and porting up for delivery he did not walk past me with my bag and throw it on the dock but instead ordered me run up to the Cannery Store and buy tea and toilet paper and diesel. And five full times I was fired at Sea that season, only to have it forgotten by landfall. And Chava was built to work and Lucio was in his element but Javier DeJesus and I saw our hands worn to ribbons and then rotten from moisture and then rashed and finally calloused within our orange gloves but the process long in the making and quick to fade on the offseason. And I stared at my hands in horror and pride, and I fancy Javier DeJesus did too, but never in the company of the other men. And in the bars of Kodiak Town the men hold their beers according to their craft, seiners roughly with their waterlogged calluses, longliners unfeeling with their swollen carpaltunnel bait-tying paws, crabbers with their fistsfull of cash and frostbite, cannery workers with their foreign tattoos and lifelines and lucklines crusty with marine blood, and I imagine the poor palmreader trying to somehow slog through these mutilated hands to ply her trade, because it’s hard to stare at your own hands and not recognize them without thinking such things.
There was no alarm and I had no watch. The Captain knew the tides and knew the Lineup and woke and slept in accordance with the combination of these elements, for to depend on the sun in its obstinate Northern stamina and lukewarm luminescence is to mislead oneself into thinking the Heavens operate in accordance with our microcosmic needs for sleep and wakefulness. When the ship before us in the Lineup put out its set the Captain turned the key in the ignition of the ship and a harsh factory buzzer sounded, and to this buzzer I awoke from every precious novella of dreamings that season. The wets came on and we found our places and Lucio was already in the skiff before I was fully awake.
Chava held a long metal pole with an Urn-shaped steel vessel on its end and plunged it into the water as the purse closed. The vessel cast large bubbles in the Sea and supposedly scared the school into the set, and when waterhauls left us cursing our luck we resorted to it more, pounding angrily into the Sea as if salmon could be herded like sheep. Next to the Urnpole were a hockey stick and a brailer. The brailer was a giant handheld dipnet five feet in diameter that could fit into the purse, so that any time the purse was too heavy for the old boom Chava and I could brail fish from the purse into the hold until the boom could handle the load. The hockey stick was for salmonsharks and skates, which Fish&Game said you could not keep or kill but were too hard to get close enough to kick back into the Sea. The salmonsharks full of teeth and vicious indignation and with no regulatory agency to keep them from harming us so we swatted them offdeck roughly from a safe distance. The Skates and Rays wider than a man’s wingspan and havoc on the boom, getting folded upon themselves up high and Chava climbing the leads in the pitching Sea to aid the Silurian beasts out of their tangles. By midset we could smell fresh coffee and breakfast waft from inside the cabin and the Captain called Javier DeJesus out to stack the webbing. The jellyfish rained down from the boom and fell about us in schools, stinging my face through my beard and burning my eyes and dying on the deck as I swore at them. I hated them, the jellyfish. Mindless bastards hardwired for antagonism by Evolution or some Malevolent Creation; too difficult to avoid in their numbers, a sloppy cretin hail of itch and sting and slipping hazards ondeck.
Chava sang through the set except when our luck was down and the Captain swore too much to get a stanza in. He sang Spanish sailor songs and old lovesongs and chintzy pop tunes he’d heard on the radio in bad English. I hummed to myself. Javier DeJesus focused silently on his hands in the webbing. After the first set of the day we ate in silence and depending on the size of the Lineup went directly out to set again. And this is Life in the waters South of Kodiak. Wake. Set. Eat. Set. Nap. Set. Sort. Set. On and on with no milestones and no markers save the volume left to fill in the hold, the void of imagined wealth never sufficiently filled by its material manifestations. Never more than four hours sleep at a stretch and the strange dreamlike physicality of the truly taxed.
I sat on the coverplanks of the hold and watched The Highliner make its set, wondering what time of day it could possibly be. What day. The Captain sat down at my side.
Look at this.
What is it?
It’s an article. Read it and tell me what you think.
He sipped his tea and sucked it from his mustache and studied The Highliner’s set, half full in the purse and the tide on its way out. Only four ships in the Lineup. A day of precious little rest and a vast calm emptiness save for the Industry of Man off the river’s mouth. I put the magazine down silently. Nothing to contribute.
Well what you think?
About the article?
Do you think the interest rates can bear that amount of investment? I mean if you put your money in now its possible that you could see a payback in less than a decade. But you could get screwed if the Fed switches with the political climate.
Well, what would you do if you had Ten Grand to invest? Take the risk?
Captain, I dunno. None of it makes sense to me.
He takes the magazine back, wondering what the hell they teach in college if it’s it not Ways to make Money that working men don’t have access to. But there’s nobody else to talk to in English so he’ll have to put up with morons and foreigners three more months. The Highliner retreats with its hold near full and leaves the Lineup for delivery, headed back across the spit towards the entrance to Alitak harbor, out of sight. We three ships represent the only fifteen souls for fifty miles in any direction. The sun shows through the clouds for ten minutes and hides anew. The Miss Katherine lays out her set.
Captain, what do you do winters? Do you crab?
Screw crabbing. Ship’s so large by the time you pay it off you’re too old to enjoy the returns. Plus once every couple years you have to call some mother on the phone and tell her the Sea killed her son. Screw that. I go back to Juneau.
What’s the winter season in Juneau?
No winter season. Don’t fish. Don’t work. Make my boys school lunches and go back to bed. Swim laps at the pool. Go to PTA meetings.
It is still today impossible for me to imagine the Captain in his immensity and hardness at a PTA meeting. Processing the concept took enough of my energy that the conversation dropped off into silence. He finished his tea and stood.
We’re next set out. Get yer wets on.
Some sets were sullen affairs, waterhauls where not a single fish came aboard and the net didn’t look like a purse at all but some wrinkled corpse of webbed cartilage. The Captain swore more than his usual and the three of us ondeck kept our heads down low looking into the barren hold and it was quiet round the table until the next set. Lucio in his meager English called them waterholes and the other Mexicans too huecos de agua and finally the Captain too mentioned the Goddamwecos and I think that’s the only word he learned in Spanish all season. The huecos took almost as much effort and sweat to bring in and the leads just as heavy on the restack and a man feels his fatigue more bitterly with the knowledge he’s worked his body for free, because there is no hourly wage on the Sea and no unions and no pensions and Time-In means nothing to a fisherman because the only way to get paid is by the pound.
But on other sets the Universe provided us such a bounty that we missed sleep happily and cheered and sang and the ship filled with riches in the great slimy teaming hold and Javier DeJesus and I happy to jump down into it, sinking slowly past our waists in suffocating thrashing Reds and Pinks and even Kings and we sorted them smiling in the gore and carnage and laughing at our luck and chucking fish at each other despite the Captain’s smiling scoldings and by the time the hold was down to our knees they moved no more and the sorting grew faster from cessation of squirming and the adrenaline of victory. Javier handpicked a White King and dinner was sweet and Lucio shared a small pint of whiskey he’d kept in his bag and though we ached and burned the Lineup came round again and the wets back on and smiling we prepared to slay anew sleepdeprived and giddy. The Captain didn’t have to swear except for joy and each man steered his grin Upward into the pouring rain and jellyfish at his riches falling down from over the boom.
And the Captain would go anywhere for salmon and wasn’t chained to Alitak. He’d go past the spit for Silvers or up clear to Olga Bay for Pinks and cross the Shelikof middle of a bluehellfire storm and wander sniffing all the way past Halibut Cove and calling on the VHF respectfully to Old Clem Tillion who’d fished those waters sixty years and on to Sand Point and Akutan with us in tow if the fish were to be found. And two week stretches turned to four and the offshore processors kept us from port — we tied ourselves to the processors to deliver and the Mexicans sang cheerfully in Spanish round the weight brailer and whenever the bored farfromhome kid above slacked on surveillance Chava sang to throw Pinks into the Reds brailer without changing the tune or cadence, price more than double per pound for Reds as Pinks. Javier DeJesus traded smoked octopus for fresh fruit on the processors which we ate like soldiers drunk on leave every minute out of work.
The Captain announced loudly to his fellows over the VHF when we’d cross the open Sea but other times he’d turn the radio off and we’d go on shorter secretly timed missions to little bays just out of reach of Akhiok and Eagle Rock he looking halfbehind him the whole trip to make sure nobody followed and we’d slay huge purses of Pinks on the Intides and actually rest two whole days so’s his friends’d think us come back from afar with our loads. These were the good days on The Sounder, the days before the Deathpurse took one of our crew from us, took the joy out of it. On those calm nights we read pornography and played truco and the Captain read his investment magazines and I always volunteered for the anchorwatch. The sun only spends three hours under the Sea highsummer and though Kodiak’s in line with half the state if you were Southerly enough to not see land the sunrise feels like a private viewing. Like you’re the only one seeing it at that precise moment. And you stretch your mindseye down in a line cross the map to see if you’d cross Hawai’i on that longitude or Easter Island or some other populated dot on the Pacific to count the chances of others sharing first light with you on the spinning earth and then you work Westward on the map, across to Cold Bay and Dutch Harbor and then you’re clear of humanity with Ocean up the Bering Gap between the silent brittle continents where the Arctic Sun hangs aloft steady without dispensing dawns or dusks and then Southward just a vast Water with no islands to speak of. And there somewhere between OneSixtyEight and OneSixtyNine degrees Longitude a man on anchorwatch can lure himself into believing that though we be billions there is at least a chance that in such a moment the common sunrise is a gift from God to him alone on this earth.