Way Up In Alaska
A short story.
1. Johnny Come Lately
I punched Serge in the face!
The fishing boat Addie rocks at anchor, the night quiet above black and moonless. The crew sleep, or lay quiet in their damp wool blankets, taking what few hours' rest they can before the pre-dawn wake-up call. Johnny lies on his back with his eyes wide open. Blind awake in the forecastle black: which is what fishingboat nights are like. He rolls suddenly from his bunk and climbs down, then feels his way across the floor. On a mission. He plunges his feet into rubber boots, then climbs up metal steps to the deck. It's cold. An arctic breeze, cold as Alaska, sweeps across the water. The hull slaps against rippling waves. In the open air, he turns in three directions to see only darkness, his vision blocked by the sheer invisible slopes of the island, the boat being tucked in the small harbor, but then turns to find the fourth, the open passage, leading out to sea. Where he can see it, a thin horizon designates between the blue-black ocean and the black-blue sky.
Where's the knife, he thinks.
Two dead fish are lying on the net. King Salmon, 30 pounds each. Johnny looks around but can't find them; everything is dark. The stars can't see through the clouds. Glancing behind himself, on the piled seine, he catches a quiet silver flash. There they are. He kneels down. And shivers. Their teardrop bodies lay lifelessly, frozen and slick, stiff as trophy fish mounted on the poolroom wall. Big enough too. But these were left just to rot.
They're all fuckers, he thinks, blaming anybody.
Pretty soon Johnny fetches the knife from a galley drawer and carries it back out. He starts carving into a fish, first poking the hard tip into the King's ribcage, wincing slightly, instinctively, just as it breaks the skin and cracks the bone, and then pulling the blade straight down through the belly. The insides spill out, a cold mess of spaghetti and link sausages. Dripping with ooze. With another cut of the knife he's got the entrails all in one hand and then throws them into the water. Two pounds of guts. Splash. Past this point, he had no idea how to filet a fish.
Earlier that night, in the same harbor, when the Addie delivered its catch to the tender, these Kings had been refused. Dead, of course. Caught for hours. The cannery wasn't buying Kings this week, a tenderman said.
—So what should we do with 'em?
—Do what you want.
The Addie's captain began walking away. But then, on second thought, he turned to one of his crew.
—We might save 'em for crab bait then. Toss 'em on the net!
Serge, his first mate, obliged, knowing fully well that nothing would happen to the fish except for getting discarded worthlessly back into the water on the following day. The pump was lifted from the hold and cleaned out. The tender drove off into the setting sun. After a hushed dinner of baked chicken, rice, and canned peas, the crew retired to their bunks, the captain to his stateroom. The boat went to sleep in the little harbor, no lights on the shore, ten hours from anywhere.
But sleep wouldn't come for Johnny, who hadn't adjusted. They all hated him. All except for Serge, his cousin, who'd gotten him the job. Although Serge had started to quietly give up on him as well. Johnny felt it. They hated him for his inexperience; he'd never worked on a fishing boat before. And they hated his youth; he was barely 19. Now after a month of labor, he still hadn't caught on, he was still green, unable to understand or carry out his duties with any kind of competence. So this night he'd turned madly in his bunk, too tired to calm down, unsure if his eyes were shut at all, as the forecastle was black as a coffin. Sized as such too.
Eventually he'd rolled over thinking about the giant Kings left to rot on the deck. Picturing them as they were. Lying dead on deck. Hours had passed. What a waste. He could have cried. The pressure had welled up behind his open eyes. Even dead, he'd never seen fish as perfect as those two before, or as heavy, or strong. In the fading daylight, their backs had shined like polished steel. Running his palm along their bodies, the muscles had felt thick, hard and tight as cable. Their tails could have whipped and cracked a neck. In their eyes too, the angry black marbles, he'd seen willfulness and defiance. They'd held a power unlike anything he'd seen in the eyes of a human, purpose stronger than anything he'd ever felt inside himself.
—Do you think you can try, Johnny, just try?
—I'm trying, alright?
—Are you just gonna fail at everything you do all your life?
So he finally runs up on deck to save the meat. At least the fantastic creatures would be eaten. That's the least respect he can grant.
Johnny feels more awake than he has the entire trip. The night air coats his lungs with a cool salt. He cuts the first backbone. It gives easier than he'd expected. His hands shake slightly; he makes short, quick slices. Coldly. He should have grabbed a sweatshirt. And afraid. Because he hadn't asked anyone if he could do this; because the other deckhands, the experienced crew, had shrugged at the dead Kings and what was Johnny's weak affection for them; they laughed at his stun that they had been left out for nothing. Because the fish were worth nothing, they said. On a different boat, a trawler, they explained, a boat that fished for Kings, and had agreed to sell those Kings to a certain market — the fish would be worth around $1.15 a pound, cleaned and iced. Then they would have value. But to a Seine boat that fished Pink Salmon, a smaller species, for a cannery, the Kings were worth nothing. They were just casualties. The crew shook their heads: forget about it. There's plenty more. Don't get so worked up.
The knife passes across the ribcage and through to the other side. Johnny lifts his first filet. It's jagged and mangled looking — even in the dark. And his hands are covered in blood. He sets the filet beside him and turns the fish over, the bare ribs bending beneath his fingertips. And then he cuts the second one.
—This isn't a hard job, Johnny.
—What is it with you?
The second filet comes better. He picks it up and admires the meat. He has never seen a piece of fish like this before — even in the grocery store. It must weigh ten pounds in his hands. He measures the flesh three inches thick and ten inches wide. Two feet long. Johnny takes the carcass now — the monstrous, angry head with its empty backbone and fanned tail, and throws it overboard. The crabs will eat it, he thinks. I'm feeding the crabs as well as myself. His two filets lie beside each other. Still another fish to go. He reaches over the rail and washes his hands in the black water. He stands and pulls down his sweatpants and takes a piss into the water. Phosphorescent light sparkles where the stream splashes down. It could hypnotize a tired man. Finished, he steps into the galley and finds a cigarette. Then he's back out on deck smoking, the ember burning brightly red, lighting up his hand.
Serge isn't such a bad guy. He just needs to lay off me some. Everybody gets on everybody's nerves out here. He got me this job. He wouldn't have gotten me this job if he hadn't thought I could do it. Everybody gets a ribbing their first year.
Johnny leans down to start on the second fish. It comes faster now. The guts all fall out around his hands. He thinks about wrapping the meat in plastic bags and freezing it. He thinks about bringing the meat home. Presenting it. He imagines a late summer picnic in his honor. A sunny day in someone's back yard. All his friends drinking tequila and smoking grass, having a good time, as they grill the fish. Have as much as you want, he says — if it wasn't for me it would have been thrown away. The sun lingers warmly and everyone wears shorts. They get drunk. The girls ask for more. Johnny smiles, thinking of jokes that haven't yet been told.
I punched Serge in the face!
This summer will have to end eventually.
Johnny hears a noise. The hatch has been thrown off of the forecastle. He sees the dark shape, like the creature from the black lagoon, climbing out of the hole. He feels caught: like with the spotlight shining down from the guard tower. The knife in his hand, covered in dark blood, is like a murder weapon. The figure walks out on the back deck and stands above him, a giant in his underpants. The man's face is covered by a thick black beard. The field of hair on his chest shivers in the breeze.
—What the hell are you doing?
His voice is a high and nasal whine in contrast to his size.
—You know we're getting up in two hours.
—I couldn't sleep.
—Well do you plan on cooking all that fish right now?
—Because it isn't going in the freezer.
—No room. Not this early in the season.
Johnny can't speak. Something twists his throat shut. He's covered in blood up to his elbows like a combat surgeon. Serge moves over to the rail and takes down his shorts. They don't talk and Johnny goes on cutting. The loud stream of Serge's piss fractures the steady quiet whirr of the wind.
—Why are you doing this?
—It's perfectly good fish.
(Johnny knows that he sounds like a sullen child.)
—We're not keeping it.
—I'm keeping it.
Serge staggers back, barely pulling up his fly. He stands above Johnny. After a moment, Serge leans over and clenches his long fingers around one of the filets. He lifts it up and studies the cut, frowning to make a point.
—Somebody should teach you how to filet a fish.
—You think? Look at this. The meat's all sliced up. You can't cook that.
Johnny looks up. And then Serge throws the hunk of meat overboard, slick flesh spinning through the night and smacking heavily into the ocean, sinking, never to be seen.
—What the fuck!
Prompted, Serge leans down and takes the second piece. Johnny's fingers curl around the knife's steely handle. He jumps to his feet, holding his arm rigid.
Serge flings the second filet.
—You can't just do that!
—There's no way Bill would let you store this in his freezer. He doesn't have the space for it and he's always complaining anyway. I'm just avoiding the argument.
—There's plenty of room!
—Yeah well you just go ahead and put that other fish in there. See if Bill doesn't spit in your eggs tomorrow.
Johnny can't speak again.
Without saying goodnight, Serge moves away and is lost in shadow. His black shape descends back down the ladder. Johnny is skinny and helpless standing alone on the back deck. He looks at the blood covering his forearms. He feels the small waves rocking the Addie beneath his rubber boots. The knife drops from his hand and bounces against the deck.
In the morning, as they start working again, the second fish is thrown overboard. Johnny stands above it watching the silver skin fade ghost-like into the predawn darkness of the water. Then somebody gives him another order.
2. The Fragile Idea
Johnny knows that there's no place for an environmentalist on a fishing boat. It just doesn't work. The Addie throws her net out 12 times a day. Each time they pull the net back in, a molten steel waterfall of salmon rolls over the side into the boat. Thousands of fish kick themselves up and across the deck, frightened, gasping for breath, knee-high. Most of them pour into the open fish hold, landing like a thousand divers in the ice-chilled water where they die of shock. It's a fast moving business. More than anything else, Johnny finds the whole process exhilarating. He'd never imagined there were so many fish in the ocean. He watches the fish pour over with wide-eyed bewilderment.
The net goes out again. The deckhands, three of them, pick up the fish that didn't make it in the hold. The way to grab a fish, they tell Johnny, is with one hand: clasp down just behind the gills two inches from the backbone. Then you toss the fish into the hold. Easy? But whenever Johnny puts his hand on a fish, the backbone kicks, the muscles contract spasmodically. Fish get away from him. They flop around and he chases them across the deck, lunging in vain, the forlorn hero of a vaudeville show. Eventually, all the fish are chased down and thrown in. The deckhands put the cover back on the hold and then hose the slime and scales off of the deck. They all smoke cigarettes and then it comes time to start pulling the net in again.
No, Johnny isn't an environmentalist. But he has sympathy for the fighters. Every set, there are always a few. He gets lost thinking about these fish. Not these fish as a species or these fish as a resource, but these fish as people. He knows that it makes no sense. But every fish, he thinks, smoking the last of his cigarette before pulling the net back in, has a lot of luck. First of all, didn't only a percentage of them actually hatch and survive as smelt, or whatever, and live long enough to swim down the creek to the river to the ocean to even get a chance to grow? That's luck. 1:100. And then, when a fish did survive, and began its adult life, didn't it swim clear across the pacific to Asia, hunted all the while by so many predators? 1:1000. Then, after years of constant struggle, didn't all these fish swim all the way back to North America and find, somehow, the very same river, the very same stream, the very same creek bed where they were born? How? How is that possible? When a fish is caught and dying on the deck of the boat, its gills gasping open in tragic breathless heaves, Johnny can't help but admire its fight. A fish swims all around the world, five out of five thousand surviving, for the sole purpose of getting back up its creek and laying its eggs or busting its nut, and is then ready to die — right on the spot, its life's goal achieved and nothing left to live for. Johnny thinks about the fighters in a quiet, lonesome way and even envies them. A fish never feels lost. A fish always knows where it's going. And so his sympathy isn't for the environment or the dying resource, but for the single fish — the fighters — the ones who just made one mistaken turn after years of luck, and made their mistake right at the mouth of the river they had been coming to. The worst part, he thinks, is that the Addie's very net had been the last obstacle these fish would have had to face before achieving that one goal they had set in their minds their whole life. So he has sympathy for the fish dying on deck who refuse to give up and somewhere, in his clumsily constructed metaphor, he really just feels sorry for himself
And he knows that it's stupid. He knows.
3. The One That Gets Away
By the late afternoon the crew is exhausted. It hasn't rained but wind has blown across the strait since early morning. A four-foot sea tosses the ship side to side, not dangerously but enough to aggravate and tire out their legs. The tide has shifted twice. Johnny, without any sleep, has spent the day in a poor haze. He feels his crewmates scorn as he moves slowly, mistakenly, and hears himself getting yelled at frequently by the captain, the deckhands, and Serge.
—Grab the single! The single!
—You hooked the throw line wrong!
But Johnny, tired and unfamiliar with the job, can only gaze around. The orders sound alien to him, like gibberish.
—The fuckamajig! The fuckamajig!
—That's the thingamabob! I said jolly the fuckamajig godammit!
His frustration burns through his stomach. Because he can't fight back. He doesn't know what to say. He feels impotent and hopeless. In his silence, he hears his impending dismissal hanging in the air, like a secret buzz. The thought of failure chokes him further. Of when they put him on a plane home the next time they reach port. He dreads the thought of getting kicked off the boat while wishing to give up at the same time. Fish flop around the deck and he tries to grab them, still unable. Everyone hates him with their eyes. He begins to fantasize about throwing a part of the catch back into the water, to let a damn fish live. Let it have another chance.
The jabs continue set after set. Things go wrong and fish are lost. Beneath the glowering stares of his crewmates, Johnny performs even worse. Dumbly, he trips over his own boots and jams his thumb on the false-deck. He cries out in hurt and holds his thumb to his face, shutting his eyes from the pain.
And then it's over for him. He sees it: Serge and the Captain talking privately, the captain shooting angry looks in Johnny's direction beneath his heavy brow. He's going to be fired. There's no way around it. As the captain curses, Serge nods his head, agreeing. Johnny will have to pay for his own ticket home and make no money at all. Next time in port.
The waves increase around the wooden boat as daylight fades. Storm clouds have rolled in against the mountains, obscuring the dark flanks. The captain signals to set again and disappears into his wheelhouse. As the skiff goes out with the net, a thick sheet of rain breaks across the deck. Johnny stands beneath the rain, his coat off, his fist curling, stray fish dancing around his feet.
Serge yells at him.
—Thefuckareyoudoing! Toss the fish in!
—Fuck you Serge! he mouths back, unheard.
Johnny gets to work. But now, with the rain and his sprained thumb, he can't do anything. He's useless. The fish slide easily from of his grip. Nobody is surprised. Johnny begins thinking of the guy they will replace him with, the guy who will do a great job, who will sleep in his bunk. Then he wants to jump on the stupid fish's heads. On their tiny brains, their jaws, their eyes. Yes! A boot lifts up — but he puts it back down. With an idea. Right then in the confusion of the rainstorm, he knows what to do. Carefully, using two hands, he picks up the fish. He looks into the fish and sees the holy will to live pulsing in its marble black eyes. This is it. This is the time. The deck rolls and he stumbles across the deck holding the fish. To the rail. Johnny looks out across the choppy water to the mouth of the creek. Ready to throw.
When Serge is there. Imploring.
—What do you think you're doing!
Johnny steps back from him, towards the bow, holding the fish in the air as it gasps for breath and kicks its tail in Johnny's two hands. Somehow he holds on, staring into Serge's bearded face, the hulk of him.
—I'm throwing this one back!
—You're not going to throw that fish back!
The creek is beautifully close. This shiny fish's destination. A pardon for one fish out of a million.
—It's just a fish!
—It's a dollar! Serge bellows into the storm.
—I'll give you a fucking dollar!
—I don't want your dollar!
—This one lives!
—You're not going to—!
The fish slides out of his hands, landing smooth in the water. Everyone on deck is watching them now. Quiet. Awkward. Serge's mouth drops open. He just looks at his cousin. Just stares.
Johnny almost smiles. The great liberator. He's done it. But he's more scared now than ever.
—Look at what you did!
Serge points into the water. There, rising and falling with the crest and trough of the ocean, is the fish Johnny threw. Belly up. The silver skin floats past like a ghost riding the breeze and is then gone, gone, sunken away.
—I don't know what's wrong with you, Johnny!
Surge pumps himself up in Johnny's face. Serge is laughing. They all laugh. The sound carries across the water. And then Johnny, skinny, helpless Johnny, lets it go. He finds his fist already tightened behind his back. Just as he cries out and swings.
His knuckle connects solidly with the bone of his Serge's hairy cheek.
—I punched Serge in the face!
Serge is set back, startled, shocked, almost. He looks confused as Johnny stands back snarling, ready to throw another.
—I punched Serge in the face!
And then, Serge punches him back.
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