Some nights, the girls from San Francisco would sneak over to the Japanese tender tied up alongside our barge with one of them cradling against her chest a King salmon which we'd filched from deep freeze. It was primitive economics. We were bored and thirsty and we were going for the big score, the Asian bootleg. And keep in mind, this was during the inaugural year of President Bush's Zero Tolerance, when an entire vessel could be seized for possession of alcohol or a just few seeds of grass. So the rest of us would wait on deck for the girls' return, watching our backs and ticking off the long blank minutes, itchy with nervous excitement. Then, after a while, the girls would all scramble back aboard, wild-eyed and grinning and blushing, carting arm loads of this ghastly rice whiskey which came packaged in square cardboard containers, like milk. We would huddle with our booty like latter-day pirates in a cramped cabin and get drunk as hell, and finally, after I'd had enough, I would ask Steph how they did it. "They just wanted to watch us dance," she would whisper. "That's it?" I would ask. "They just wanted you to dance? The Japanese dudes just wanted you to dance around? Naked?" "No," she would say, exasperated. "They wanted us to dance for them. With our clothes on. For the booze. That's it. Forget about it." I drank the whiskey down and tried to forget about it.
When there were fish coming in, we worked rotating shifts of 12 and 18 hours without stopping. Our sleep patterns were played like an insane waltz on the merciless accordion of production. You slept if or when they allowed you to sleep. At night (due to our proximity to the pole this became a very relative term), I would dream of nothing but fish. Fish, fish, fish, an avalanche of fish, a deluge of fish, a gruesome never-ending procession of dead staring fish. They would come faster and faster on the conveyor belt as I stood clutching a dreamblade in each fist and trying to gut them all. And in the mornings before work, Stephanie would have to pry my hands open for me because they had crabbed into tight hammers from acute tendonitis. Five cords of relentlessly tugging hurt radiated from the center of each palm into my cramped digits. It felt as though a terrible machine was inhering and growing within my flesh.
The bush pilot who flew us from the airport to the edge of the ocean was drunk. I sat in the cockpit beside him and breathed his sticky beersweat stench and began silently praying to a god I decided right there to believe in. Three of the girls from San Francisco were packed into the rear of the plane with their luggage. The pilot wouldn't shut up; he kept turning around and winking at the girls, tugging on the joystick. And I was so fucking scared as we bounced and jigged through the sky that I just threw my arm over the seat and held out an open hand. The one who grabbed it was Stephanie and that's how we became lovers.
The barge Neptune was a huge concrete slab of floating perdition, about 170 feet long and 80 or so across. The processing deck was situated below the main at the water line and was essentially a mobile saltwater sweat shop, a crude factory for gutting and packing and freezing fish. The fleet of Alaskan seiners would tie up starboard and unload their catch through a massive vacuum apparatus, filling our stainless steel hopper with saline slime and meat. One fortunate person was designated each shift—and this was considered the easiest job—to operate the "sphincter," a large, black-rubber mechanical device that worked like a collapsible photographic shutter. It opened and deposited the salmon down a chute toward the headers and gutters and eventually to the slime line. The slime line was where the majority of the crew worked, the rabble, the disenfranchised, the proles, standing for 18 hour stretches before a stinking, slippery trough, picking up and butchering fish after fish after fish. You took your sharp knife and ran it along the artery on the inner spinal column and then turned the knife over and ran the spoon attached to the other end along the incision, scraping away the black jelly. Most of the time that summer I was stuck within this motley demographic, along with ex-cons and lunatics and addicts and lifers and poor, smug college students. We formed a bedraggled and disgruntled regiment of razor-wielding, somnolent, hung-over grunts in capitalism's bloody war of attrition. We were each of us forgotten peons with dangerously hallucinating minds and aching joints and rapidly atrophying humanity.
Of course the fish-dance-for-Japanese-whiskey deal couldn't work for the older guys. They had nothing to barter and the college girls wouldn't even acknowledge their existence much less shake ass on their alcoholic behalf. But the oldsters needed the booze even more than we did. They were desperate. So Walt, the ex-con and self-proclaimed Rainbow hippie from Montana, broke into the galley one night when the cooks were off duty and he lifted a five-pound bag of Idaho potatoes and some sugar and unsweetened Kool-Aid mix, and then he got a large white slop bucket from the processing deck. With these crude supplies, he somehow rigged up a make-shift distillery. Walt was a very tall, ugly, lanky man with few teeth left, and those that did remain in his mouth hung like diastematic shingles, black and brown with rot, and one evening he approached me—why me?—after work and asked if I wouldn't perhaps care for a snort of this ad hoc moonshine of his. I followed him to his cabin. There in the gloom and stench, Walt held aloft two tiny Styrofoam coffee cups and recited something about the elixir of the gods and then handed me a shot. He was beaming with pride. He was a genius. Inside the cup was a cloud of brown sediment swirling in pink swill. I drank it. It evaporated in my mouth. It was horrible. The last thing I recall, I was on my knees in the communal latrine, bent over a toilet rim and retching up dense clots of black bile, crying and raving like a madman. Someone was knocking on the door of the stall, asking if I was okay. Blackout.
In Alaska there is no law, save perhaps that which can be discerned in solitary acts of brute economics or brute desire. To realize in that vast wasteland that the enchantment and lust and murder of the wild frontier have found their last shrinking refuge on this burnt-out planet is a beautiful, terrifying thing. The eight ball of Manifest Destiny pitches and sinks in the high corner pocket. And when I finally came to understand just where I was and where I stood in that nasty, brutish world, the cultivated poetics of my posed loneliness fell away like dead skin, and a raw instinct for survival turned me into a mean, paranoid bastard.
Stephanie and I screwed our first night on the Neptune, blindly and resolutely, a lightning flash mating dance inspired by fright and enclosure and who knows what else. Steph had skylarked her way up to Alaska from San Fran in a beat VW van with a group of college pals. By the time they hit that fabled Yukon, those girls thought they'd achieved some highly evolved state of romanticized slumming. It was a rude awakening for Steph, stepping onto that barge and understanding right off what it was she'd gotten herself into. We latched onto each other immediately. And over the course of that season, the two of us would stay up nights in my cabin, fighting off sleep and despair and disintegration. We would giggle and whisper and fuck and dream the counterfeit dreams of youth. In that remote corner of the world, we could lie to each other about everything.
As the weeks progressed, my co-workers began to unravel and come apart. There was nowhere to go and nothing to do but. The sediment at the bottom of each individual soul began to rise perniciously to the top and that barge became a Petri dish of human proclivity laid bare, a woozy maritime psychodrama, a nightmare. Every action, every motion, every breath, became a gesture which traced in the air the naked origins of our social silhouettes. Layers peeled away to reveal ever deeper layers hiding hearts of darkness. One night as we lay in bed I said to Stephanie, "Do you realize that anything could happen now?" It just came out like that, but she seemed to understand. We pulled the sheet up against our necks like frightened children and waited in the dark.
Wes, the cowboy who had the bunk above mine (Steph and I had rigged a mini-not-so-private tent by tucking a sheet under his mattress) pulled me aside one night after dinner. We really needed to talk. "You picked the wrong girl," he told me. "Oh yeah?" I said. I peered into the deep whirling orbs of his skull, into eyes crazy with knowledge. "Yeah," he snarled. "She's a bad bitch. Bad woman, man. That girl's gonna do you wrong. She's nothin' but trouble, man. Trust me." You see, he was trying to help. The labyrinthine repository of his misogyny was lit by carnal betrayal and the distaff evil of innumerable rustic sirens. He was positively unctuous with soft-spoken hatred. He wanted to save me from my Lady Macbeth through a fierce application of his smoldering cowpoke wisdom. God, he was so intense. I was spooked. I was confused. I didn't know who or what or why to believe anymore.
In the commissary they sold cartons of Winstons for 10 bucks a pop, no tax, against your next paycheck. I went blazing through these at the rate of two a week. They also sold condoms, but it wasn't a good idea to admit you were getting laid on that barge. The skewed logistics of the situation made Steph and I stupid. Those rubbers sat like a ledger on a dusty shelf. Stephanie got pregnant.
There were weeks on end when the season stalled and there was no work. The crew wandered aimlessly within the stale confines of sudden unemployment, prisoners of a palpably violent boredom. To pass the time, I played marathon games of Ping-Pong with a Czechoslovakian guy named Igor. The table was set up in the rec room, which was adjacent to the movie room, which was adjacent to nothing. And I got so good with the English that I could glance the ball off the very edge of the table and send it shooting like a comet to the floor. Igor and I had a running tournament and we would converge on that sad green plateau without speaking—not that we could understand each other anyway—and we would volley for serve. Other folks tried to join our tournament, but they quickly grew disgusted with how serious we'd become. Our ambition was regarded with the utmost suspicion. As we played, Mikey the Midget, another terminal slime-liner, sat watching his favorite video tape Robo Cop over and over and over in the adjoining parlor. It was the only tape he ever watched. Mikey could recite that movie line for fucking line and he always let everyone know when the good parts were coming up and he always laughed like hell at the same scenes, a high cackling wail which tipped the scales of madness. Gnip, clack, gnip, clack, gnip clack went the little white ball.
Walt the Rainbow ended up going absolutely ape-shit on that potato moonshine of his. One day he got loaded up and broke down the door to the office, where the skipper was busy with some paperwork. Walt dropped his trousers down about his bony ankles and proceeded to piss all over the desk while at the same time holding forth with some garbled diatribe on the abuses of labor and the lies of management and that particular nowhere that is Alaska. Eventually, they subdued him and got his pants back on and shoved him in the skiff and dumped him on the stark American shore without a penny to his name. That's it. That's how they did it: just cut you loose. Poor Walt. The first casualty in a long line of disenfranchised and downtrodden folks who simply couldn't hack it.
Sean, the Hispanic guy who bunked in the cabin next to mine, missed his girlfriend desperately. He would listen religiously to this one miserable ballad by Def Leppard, which helped remind him of his absent woman's sweet love. That song worked a real magic on him. We would sit in his room and drink contraband whiskey and he would explain to me in lurid detail the many ways he was going to make love to his gal when he finally got off this stinking barge. A little of this. And then some of that. This. Bingo. Then that. A soliloquy of surgical maneuvers and tactical strikes. An epic poem of lust and libidinal conquest. Sean was being eaten alive by his own horniness. Like a performance artist going off the deep end, he would instruct me visually, to the beat of the music, on the acrobatics of depth and thrust, flying across the room, humping the empty spaces where his girlfriend was supposed to be. And me, I just listened and watched, because Sean was already as crazy as he was going to get. He was tough. He was in for the long haul. He had something to look forward to, which kept him intact. The two of us, we got along fine.
During a particularly long and hazardous stretch of idleness, the good ship Neptune decided to throw a party for her stir-crazy crew. They ferried us out by the skiff-load to the nearest beach and dumped case after case of tepid Budweiser onto the sand and then left us to drunkenly destroy each other. Steph and I and a few of her friends grabbed some beer and found a safe spot on a rise above the shore and watched the sickness unfold. First they buried Bill the Buffoon, who had passed out relatively early on in the proceedings, up to his neck in sand and urinated en masse upon his head. He slept right through it. Then down the beach a ways we could see Chaz, our beloved cook, down on all fours in the sand. Her pants were in a bunch at her feet and her huge bare ass shone to the sky and she was screaming "Fuck me! Fuck me!" at Jim, the high school science teacher (who was earning some extra income during summer vacation) as he walked away slowly into the distance. Vicious, desperate, pointless fights erupted at random. The gates of some minor hell were flung open. Steph and I looked on in despair. We held hands tightly and drank our beers.
Marx: "After capital had taken centuries in extending the working-day to its normal maximum limit, and then beyond this to the limit of the natural day of 12 hours, there followed on the birth of machinism and modern industry in the last third of the 18th century, a violent encroachment like that of an avalanche in its intensity. All bounds of morals and nature, age and sex, day and night, were broken down. Even the ideas of day and night, of rustic simplicity in the old statures, became so confused that an English judge, as late as 1860, needed a quite Talmudic sagacity to explain 'judicially' what was day and what was night. Capital celebrated its orgies."
There were rare moments of inspiration during that long, strange season. Four of the more pragmatic young men aboard worked out a routine regarding the rules and usage of their cabin which proved that not every soul on that barge was bogged down in a morass of cruelty, delusion and moral numbness. It was a strategy which became renowned among the crew not only for its intrepid Yankee genius, but also for the remarkable ease and grace with which it was executed. This was it: after a long shift, one of the four roommates would nonchalantly approach his fellow dormers and inform them that the time had undeniably come for him to "spank it." This would be met with gentlemanly nods all around which carried not the slightest hint of sarcasm or embarrassing ribbing. The lonesome Lothario would then simply retire to his cabin, while the three temporarily dispossessed occupied themselves with a game of cards or some such innocuous activity. After a while, said seafaring onanist would emerge from his cabin, and the private whorehouse of his mind, with a serene aura of accomplished relief, and announce, as though he had just put out the trash or balanced his checkbook, "Okey-dokey. All done." He would be dealt in on the next hand without a word.
Brett was our night shift foreman. He was a hulking, olive-skinned, native Alaskan who was perpetually pickled on a hidden and seemingly endless supply of Jim Beam and dope. His face was riddled with the battle scars indicative of a lifetime engagement with the demons endemic to the northwest fishing trade. Brett had made and lost a million fortunes, riding the boom and bust of diminishing salmon runs. Old Brett was a career man. He would show up for shift, his lips glistening with liquor, and in the space of 18 hours he would seem to re-enact in compression the entire history of regret. Somehow, he always made it through. Brett knew that barge inside and out and one day during a coffee break he pulled me aside—why me?—and told me exactly how long it would take for that thing to sink if it ever decided to go down. He had seen it once before, mind you. Forty-five seconds, I think it was. "And do you know what?" he said. He appeared to be very concerned, almost frantic. "The only thing that can save you . . . maybe . . . in these waters, is a survival suit. And you know how many of those we got?" he asked with a strange, ominous smile. "How many?" I said. "Three," he said. "One for the top three men on the crew." "Oh," I said. "And you know where they are?" he asked. "Where?" I asked. "I can't tell you," he blurted, looking for all the world like the guilt of this knowledge was killing him.
Titanic. S.O.S. Mayday, mayday. Women and children first.
When they moved the barge mid-season, to get closer to the big salmon runs, they hooked us up to a tug with two long steel cables and hauled us rolling through the mean Bering Sea. At the tug end, the cables were rigged with small explosive charges which could be detonated in the eventuality that we capsized. Everyone on board knew that the barge was barely seaworthy. It cut through the water with the reluctant buoyancy of a waterlogged corpse. We rocked like hell in the stormy sea and in the galley all the dishes jumped the shelves and crashed to the floor and Stephanie and I lay in my bunk and held each other against certain death. At one point, I attempted to make my way to the latrine to puke. I bounced off the walls of the corridors in nauseating slow motion like some slapstick drunk. I finally made it. Grabbing the porcelain rim, I choked and spat and coughed but nothing came up. I grunted and groaned, I hiccuped in agony. My head throbbed worse than any potato mash hangover or anything ever. There was no relief. It went on and on. I wanted to die. I really wanted to die.
When Bill the Buffoon awoke from his Budweiser coma to find himself buried up to his neck in sand and drenched in piss, he went on a killing rampage after his alleged assailants and immediately received a sharp blow to the mouth, which knocked one of his front teeth off clean at the root. When the skiff finally arrived on the shore to haul us back to the barge, Steph and I clambered into it in absolute panic. A toothless Bill sat with us, dejected and morose-looking in the stern, his head hanging heavily, his luck run bone dry. Stephanie asked him gently what he planned on doing about his tooth. "Oh," he said. "Nothing. It'll grow back in a while." There was a moment of silence. Then Steph erupted. "No it won't grow back!" she yelled fiercely. "You fucking idiot! Teeth don't grow back! Jesus! Oh, Jesus! You fool!" She roared. She laughed maniacally. I felt very bad. We were all lost but still losing it.
The truth about our relationship is that we used each other just the same as that cosmodemonic fishgutting corporation used us. That's really what kept us together for so long, the fact that from the very beginning our desires and needs were stripped and established, without history and without precedent, and everything we consequently did with or to each other was only a diminishing echo of what went down everywhere on that barge. We were as simultaneously intimate and paranoid as prisoners thrown together into the same musty cell. We needed each other, but we hated the circumstances of that need. All the cards were on the table but nobody had seen the shuffle. My jealousy, her deceit, my fear, her withdrawal, our questions and answers, our push and shove—all the intricate warp and woof of love set before us like an experiment in fate, a prophesy or a curse. Because we were outside of the time and place which defined us, which told us who and what we were, we were quite literally castaways from our own pasts. We renewed ourselves with each nervous tic, each fresh wound. And when we wanted to let it go, we couldn't. There were no corners to turn, nowhere to hide. You can't escape escape.
That summer, during down time, I read voraciously from a stack of books I had spent my last few dollars on in Seattle before I shipped out. I'd brought the heavy weights with me. I wanted to get smart. So while all this shit was going down around me, I sat like an idiot in the Library of Irony, the Reading Room of the Ignorant. I had the collected shorts of Kafka, Marx, the tragedies of Shakespeare, Conrad, Proust, Melville, Henry Miller, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Hobbes, Locke. I read the Bible. I was 19 and confused and elated and sad and I read and read and read, hunched over the pages in an empty break room, sipping on chemical coffee.
Now any time I pass through the fish market I am transported a blue-collar braindead Proust chewing madeleine by the smell of fish back to those long ago times the experience filling in piecemeal and then complete and encompassing and I actually feel nostalgic for the brutal simplicity of days and the stupidity of work and gray rain in the last sigh of innocence in that vast hell and it seems the only real thing to go back to that I can hold and the frames flip by in episodic aphoristic alphabet of life like a haunted nickelodeon and I yearn for the tyranny of task and the lack of choices to do what I must and if I think things are bleak they are but I know a little more about that why and forever but how to tell about what you really can't leave nor return to and it was only a job only a goddamn job but I stand for a moment lingering before that glass case anyways before slabs of pink fish meat and wonder why it feels like so much more.
The guys who ran the headers were the toughest. They didn't care. They seemed to want to lose a finger. Ka-chung, hiss, ka-chung, hiss, went those machines, the hydraulics pumping continuously like some ominous metronome keeping time in piscine purgatory. I tried once to step up to one of these infernal machines, to escape the drudgery of the slime line, but I was so cautious and slow that they promptly kicked me off. Industry marches on. But for the short time I was up there beheading salmon, I fantasized about taking my index finger off at the knuckle and thereby ensuring myself a free ride home, thick with pain killers and rich with worker's comp. Compound all that amorphous pain into one quick thunk of the blade, and pack it in. It couldn't hurt that bad.
Stephanie didn't tell me she was pregnant while we were together in Alaska. That news came too late. I never suspected that she faked her arm injury, and in fact I became righteously furious when I found out that everyone else assumed she was pulling a fast one on the company. One day she just began complaining about her bum shoulder and then she quit showing up for shifts altogether. After about a week they decided, grudgingly, to let her go home. Her parole was up. Her number was drawn. So we told each other we would meet again on the outside and I watched her climb into the skiff and she was gone.
Eventually I got stuck in the "hole" along with a Vietnam vet named Dave. I was being punished by Brett for my constant bitching and caterwauling about the agonizing boredom of the slime line. The "hole" was a small, dank cell located beneath the processing deck, in the hull, actually underwater, where the decapitated and gutted salmon were dropped down and lined up on a rusty conveyor belt before traveling into the catacombs of the freezer. It was dark in there and the walls dripped with goo and blood. Four of us were banished to that awful netherworld, two on one side of the belt and two on the other, stooping and arranging the fish just so. One fish, two fish, three fish. Red fish, blue fish, me fish. The only benefit of being placed in the "hole" was that you could smoke while your co-workers covered for you. We would take turns sucking down damp Winstons and then sticking the butts inside the bellies of the fish.
Wes the Cowboy, who one who had so menacingly warned me that I was with the wrong girl, decided one fine day that he had had enough, and he quit. Who knows what had been going through his addled head? I had somehow failed his twisted test of friendship and he had become increasingly withdrawn and creepy. A gang of us went out to see him off. As he boarded the skiff for the shore, he turned to us, raised a mighty fist to the sky, and began calling down the heavens in an ecclesiastical frenzy of curses and damnations. It was an awesome spectacle. As the boat pulled away from the barge, he shouted at the top of his lungs: "And there ain't no good pussy to be had! No, sir! No good pussy on this stinking boat! No good pussy in Alaska!"
Sometimes the salmon would hit the slime line with their guts still hanging out because the machines in charge of tearing away the innards hadn't properly done the job. Soft little minnows were wrapped up in the dangling viscera. And one day I bet the entire crew on the slime line that I would swallow one of these minnows whole. I was serious. I was coming unglued. I knew this and still I didn't care. I took off my heavy black gloves, pinched one of the tiny fish between my thumb and forefinger, raised it above my head and dropped it into my mouth. Mucoprotein saltstick down the hatch. I'd made good, I'd won the bet. But then I picked up another and tossed it casually into my mouth. Then another. And another. Sean, who was standing beside me, leaned over and with fear and awe in his voice pleaded with me to stop. "Just quit it, man," he said. "You're fucking sick. Something's wrong, dude. You're scaring me." I put my gloves back on and went back to work. I'd made an easy 50 bucks, though. Fifty smackeroos. Filthy lucre.
Kierkegaard: "Salmon is in itself very delicious eating, but too much of it is bad for the health, inasmuch as it is a heavy food. For this reason, once when there was a great catch of salmon, the police in Hamburg ordered each master of a household to give his servants salmon not more than once a week. Would that there might be a similar police notice with regard to sentimentality."
The tug pulled us into a place called Cold Bay. It was growing dark. They detached the suicide cables and left. The Neptune now sat alone inside a huge crater at the beginning or perhaps it was the end of time. The water was an unmoving sheet of obsidian. I was certain that there lurked at the bottom of those still waters some awful Mesozoic behemoth. Apparently, some of my compatriots thought so too. They decided to go fishing. They dropped a thick steel line down into the depths. To the end of the line they had rigged a big hook and on this they skewered a bloody piece of raw steak. The line was coiled on a winch. I observed these proceedings from the safety of the upper deck, leaning against the steel railing, smoking a Winston. After a while, they noticed an angry tug in the works. I watched as the winch, creaking and grinding with the weight, slowly reeled whatever was at the end of the line to the surface. I saw the men lean over with gaffs and struggle as they attempted to pull a very large and ungainly thing over the edge of the stern. It flopped onto the deck with a tremendous wet slap and then lay perfectly still. It was the monster. It was flat and gray and ugly as sin. The men bent over it in primitive wonder. I asked the old guy standing next to me what in the hell it was. "Halibut," he said dryly. Then he called down to those below: "You dumbasses had best stand back from that thing. When it decides it don't like bein' outa the sea, it's gonna jump and it'll damn sure break one a yer skinny necks." The fishermen looked up at him silently, and at the same moment began to back away from the halibut. And I swear, just as they did, that thing went into a very slow and protracted buckle, and then lifted itself mightily, completely off the deck and into the air and came crashing back down. Thud. Once. That was it. It didn't move again. Eventually, the skipper brought out a rifle and put a single bullet into its head and they carried it down below and carved from the carcass about 140 pounds of good meat. You think they wanted to eat that shit? No way. The barter system once again went into effect. The Japanese merchants were delighted. Everybody was in rice whiskey for a week.
The combined clatter of all the machinery down in the hole was nearly deafening. We would yell stories and jokes at each other across the belt as we moved the fish around this way and that. It didn't take long to realize that Dave, the Vietnam vet, was dangerously deranged. He began to loosen up and tell stories in a squeaky, excited voice, tales about all the women in Jamaica he had fucked and married, a harem of ebony beauties who worshipped him as their one true American King. He would stick out his tongue and wiggle his hips obscenely and bug out his crazy eyes as he pantomimed the bunk eroticism of his delusional interracial lust. Out of sheer boredom, or something much worse, I began to torment Dave. I ruthlessly flirted with his latent homicidal tendencies. I wanted him to explode. "Oh, yeah," I would say sarcastically, winking boldly at the others. "So how many have you bagged, Dave?" Dave would glare at me, twitching and fidgeting. "So they all just fall at your feet, Dave? Is that right? Wow, gosh, Dave, that's pretty damn impressive? What a stud you are. You're a real man, Dave."
Stephanie and I got sent up into the ice room one day. We climbed the ladder and opened the door and inside was a wonderland of snow. We fell in and shut the door behind us and suddenly we were in this big beautiful field and it was a silent night and nothing of the squalor and drudgery of our present circumstances had followed us inside. We were supposed to shovel all of the new ice away from the place where it came blowing out in soft flakes, move the pile from one side of the room to the other. And we sure took our sweet time. We had a snowball fight. We slid around in our yellow raingear. We rolled together in the artificial snow, hugging and kissing and laughing. Nothing but white everywhere. We built a snowman.
Near the end of the shift I heard someone scream "OH MY GOD!" which reverberated backwards over the familiar clank and sigh of the header blades. What had happened pieced together immediately in my mind like some horror show collage. I looked up from the slime line. One of the guys working the header station was holding his right hand out before him, staring at it in shock. Everything fell silent, everyone was looking. His heavy black glove was taken clean off at the three middle fingers, and as I watched I saw those three fingers poke out uncertainly like wiggling pink minnows. It was a miracle. The digits were intact. God had protected him. Then he looked out from his perch at all of us with a strange sort of dignity, with a twisted, knowing glow in his eyes, and he slowly climbed down from his station and walked off the work deck. He didn't say a word. He was done. Someone called out to him: "Hey, man! Hey! Don't forget to punch out! You forgot to punch the clock!"
Henry Miller: "This world which is in the making fills me with dread. I have seen it germinate; I can read it like a blue-print. It is not a world I want to live in. It is a world suited for monomaniacs obsessed with the idea of progress—but a false progress, a progress which stinks."
Stephanie had an abortion in San Francisco while I finished out the season aboard the barge Neptune. I had sealed myself against our separation as I had against everything else, and the letter that arrived one day telling me of what she had endured left me in a state of disbelief and weak denial. She was so very far away and no emotion rang the cold, cold bell of my heart. I would not let myself feel anything for the outside, could not imagine what was still out there. I resented her new existence and the persistence of her memory. I was convoluting. I drank whatever was available. I felt trapped in the incomprehensible web of my life, and that thing which had once been my future closed in on me like a grim epilogue. My innocence was gone. And I didn't know it. Nor did I replace it.
The rumors start early and only the rookies believe them. From an invisible source and down through a chain of dubious authority flies word that the salmon season is coming to an early end. Hallelujah! The end is near! Yes, to be sure, somewhere in that lost, exploited land sits a committee of Kafka's envoys, champing the finest Cuban cigars and speaking in clipped, cryptic phrases of archaic laws and regulations, who deliberate around the clock and who, at any moment, will describe in the smoky air a gesture of such preternatural magnitude that all industry shall come to a screeching halt. Someone on board would approach you mysteriously; they had just spoken to someone else, who had it on good faith from the ship across the way that the season would be coming to a premature close next week. No! Yes! No! So you begin to count the days in excruciating anticipation. Only fools count days in Alaska. It is the most egregious form of self-torture. To hold onto this sort of quantifiable hope is to give up any chance you might have of survival. You might as well give up the ghost. You send a flare to the vultures of despair, and the angel of time casts a sad eye on your deluded soul.
The processing deck was now empty. I stood at the edge of the loading dock and gazed out into the brief summer night. The water was calm and dark. It was peaceful, a rare moment. When Dave crept up behind me and said "So" softly in my ear, he was close enough that I could feel the heat of his breath on my neck. "So you think I'm full of shit, eh?" he asked. He was so miserable with hate that his voice quavered. And there was virtually no space between us and the swallowing ocean. It was perfect. One little nudge from behind. There would be no trace of me. No one would know where I had disappeared to. I would finally be granted my madman-assisted suicide, my sordid, seasalty euthanasia. "Listen, Dave," I said slowly. "We're all going a little stir crazy here. I really don't think you're full of shit, man. I just think you exaggerate things a bit. To tell a good story. There's nothing wrong with that. It's natural." I oh-so-carefully pivoted around to face him. Dave was much shorter than me, and he held his ground, stood there shaking with anger. His fists were clenched into little homicidal balls. The veins in his neck were throbbing. "Come on, Dave," I said. I held out my hand. "I'm your friend. I like your stories. Really. Shake, man." He eyed me suspiciously. He wanted to believe. I could see the wheels spinning. After much deliberation, he took my hand reluctantly into his. It was a touching portrait of reconciliation. Two psychopaths shaking on it. Beyond good and evil. Ping-Pong, yin and yang. "Let's have a smoke," I said. "Let's enjoy this moment."
On the day Stephanie left, I went back to work feeling empty and lifeless, and the foreman put me in charge of the "sphincter," perhaps out of sympathy, I don't know. All I had to do was press a red button and feed fish down the trough in manageable doses. I sat wondering if I would ever see her again and I was sure I wouldn't and didn't know if I really wanted to and I pressed the button. Suddenly there was a loud pop as the hydraulics malfunctioned and the sphincter burst open. An entire shipload of salmon came rushing in a torrent through the works and spilled onto the processing floor. Brett was screaming at me and I punched at the button wildly, but the stuff just kept coming. There was no stopping it. When it was over, everyone was standing ankle deep in a quagmire of mangled, necrotized salmon and kelp and gloppy marine debris. It took us hours to clean up the mess. And as I was busy throwing fish into the slime trough, Sean came up to me and said with a sad, sympathetic smile: "Man, that's so symbolic." "What are you talking about?" I asked. He shook his head in awe. "Your girl leaves," he said, "and that same day the sphincter blows while you're on it. It's too much."
On the last ride back from the beach party, the skiff began filling up with water. Just before it reached the Neptune, it went completely under. Everyone on it had to swim the hundred yards or so back to the barge. As Sean was making his way in a dog paddle through the icy water, he heard someone calling from behind. He turned back. Mikey the Midget was flailing and splashing like Pip in the dark waters, crazy with fear. Sean reached him and got behind him and grabbed him around the chest and somehow swam both of them back in. He told me all of this as we sat in his cabin, listening to that one song of his, sipping Japanese whiskey. "The funny thing is, man," he said, "is that I can't even swim myself. I don't know how I did it. I just did it."