TOBY SULLIVAN’s work has appeared in many publications, including the Anchorage Press, Alaska Magazine, X-Tra Tuf, Mary, and Two Review, as well as the anthologies Out On the Deep Blue and Salt in Our Veins. He also was featured in the 2003 documentary "The Fisher Poets." He lives in Kodiak, Alaska.
In March our regular cook, a girl form Kodiak named Laurie, took off for a vacation in Hawaii. We waved goodbye as she got into the cab on the dock in Dutch and headed to the airport. An hour later, we watched from the back deck of the boat as the red and blue and white markings on the Reeve Aleutian Airways prop plane flashed over us and banked out over the bay, past Akun Head for the four hour trip to Anchorage. A friend of hers flew in the next day from Kodiak to be our new cook. Kathy was in her late thirties, older that any of us, and possessed of a certain graying hippie charm. We had a new cook.
A week later, after we’d been pulling gear for a few days, Gary, the skipper, decided to let the pots soak for a day, giving us an idle afternoon. We drove over to Amak Island, a barren chunk of granite ten miles off the north side of Unimak Island.
The entire island would have fit inside the bleachers of a high school football field, and was usually nothing more than a blip on the radar screen. But this morning we could see the weathered rock rising a hundred feet out of the water and a slight breeze rippled the otherwise calm ocean; the boat rolled gently; a slow foaming surge worked up and down the barnacled gray rock. Above the surge several hundred Steller sealions lay in the bright March sunlight, their brown bodies like massive slugs. Most of them were sleeping; a few raised their heads to stare at us. A couple of bulls bared their teeth and bellowed. As we idled downwind the stench became intense, like the monkey house at a zoo, but worse, much worse, the smell of urine and feces almost visible in the clear air.
In the apparent emptiness of the Bering Sea they were huge and unlikely animals. and they lolled like mammal kings on this remote rock, and we were alone with them.
Gary moved the boat a little closer and turned it so we were broadside to the island. The morning sun was behind us, the sealions and the rock shadowless, every detail on their bodies lit with the golden morning light, the folds of brown hide, the leathery black flippers, the long colorless whiskers sprouting from their snouts and jaws.
The engineer was a nineteen year old named Dean. He went into his stateroom and came out with a black powder 45 caliber muzzleloader rifle. We’d been dying to shoot it for weeks. We watched as he poured powder down the barrel, wrapped a cloth patch around a bullet, and ramrodded it into the gun. Gary stood outside the pilothouse with a deer rifle. “Ready?” he said. “Yup,” said Dean. They spread their legs spread for balance against the rolling of the boat and leveled the guns at the sealions.
Kathy came out of the galley then. “You’re not really doing this are you?” she said. “You can’t, you just can’t,” she said. “Oh God. I can’t believe this.” She put her hands to her ears and squinted her eyes and then Dean pulled the trigger. There was a sliver of delay between the click of the trigger on the firing cap and the explosion of flame and smoke and noise and then within the cloud of sound we could hear a small distinct smacking sound, like a fist hitting the palm of the other hand. A sealion flinched and blood spurted from its neck and it heaved itself up and flopped off the rock into the water. Gary fired his deer rifle, a much sharper bang than the black powder gun, and blood poured down another animal’s side. The entire herd was now humping furiously down the slope of rock, awkward as giant slugs, but moving with a weird agility and far faster than I had thought they were capable of. Dean reloaded and Gary kept firing, working the bolt on the rifle, the ejected shells making little pinging noises on the deck. The sealions swarmed in the water between the boat and the rock and Gary and Dean shot them as they raised their heads to breathe. The frantic animals bellowed and snorted blood from their nostrils as they were hit, and then sagged, the water around them darkening with blood. A flock of seagulls wheeled placidly overhead, their wings almost painfully white in the sunshine, and light shone through their feathers when they flew across the sun. Dean reloaded the gun and handed it to me.
While it was happening I could feel the mechanical momentum of the scene, the roar of the exploding black powder, the concussive flash, the smacking of the bullets into the sealion flesh, the smoke drifting across the deck. There was something purely and singularly physical about it all, as if the act of firing the guns and watching the blood spurt out of the brown bodies was an event whole unto itself, and related to nothing else but itself. The light was strong and clear, and the rest of the world was far away.
And it was fun, there was no getting away from that. There was an uncomplicated pleasure in aiming well and making eight hundred pound animals keel over and die, a sweetness in having the kinetics down in the same way that driving a motorcycle fast and accurately on a curving road can be almost spiritually satisfying, or mastering the timing of winching crabpots over the rail in synch with the roll of the boat. It had something to do with extending the will out through the hand into the world, an application of power and effect over distance, a moving outward of the circumferential line between what can be controlled and what cannot. There was, at first, a deep and terrible satisfaction in making things happen, and then, like all vandalism, an undeniable excitement.
For there was a secret black kernel of pleasure in killing these animals, a pleasure that came in the badness of the act itself, an act of conscienceless ego, a recognition, even an exultation, in an act of desecration, in knowing that no civilized person could condone such a thing.
Standing on deck with the sun shining on us and the dead sealions floating in the water, none of this had yet occurred to me. I knew that I would remember the feel of the warm smooth steel of the rifle in my hands, the smell of shit and gunpowder in the soft air, the roaring of the sealions as they flopped in their own blood, and the clear spring light over all of it. And I knew even as the gunsmoke was still clearing off the deck, that we had not been engaged in a simple mechanical act with no consequences or meaning, that as much as it might have looked like simple target practice, it was not. I knew that I was involved in something I did not entirely understand, and that the experience of it had gone in deep, though I did not know then how deep, or that it would take years for it to work its way back out of me in a process that would be inextricably entangled with the act of growing up itself.
But when we were done shooting the sealions at Amak Island, when there were no more moving targets and the surviving animals had finally scattered out of range, I did know, even then, that the lines between killing fish, or deer, or sealions, right up past armed men on the other side of a treeline, or unarmed POW’s, or even villagers huddled in a ditch, all those lines, were potentially arbitrary and artificial, and possible to step over. I suddenly understood that in a certain moment, in the presence of encouragement from authority or peers, or in the absence of moral authority larger than ourselves, that whatever sense of right and wrong we might have had going in could flutter away like paper in the wind. I knew then that most of us, maybe even all of us, were capable of committing the bloodiest atrocities without the slightest hesitation, and that in this lay the explanation for any number of violent events, from individual “senseless” murders to the incineration of cities. Like cats and wolves, like all predators, men like killing things, and there is something undeniably pleasurable and satisfying and deeply human in applying weaponry and making bodies fall, whether they are ducks or deer or sealions or men. The Germans, perhaps more honest than the rest of us, even have a phrase “blut die begierde,” for the bloodlust fever that seizes men in battle or after, when the enemy is routed, when the wounded and women and children and horses stumble under swords and pikes or automatic weapons fire, falling in rows like stalks of wheat. And I knew that morning at Amak Island that killing animals for fun was different merely by legal consequence from killing men, and that in a certain light, killing codfish or buffalos or Sioux Indians or sealions was all the same.
In Soldier of Fortune magazine, available at Carl’s Commercial in Dutch Harbor, there were T-shirts advertised with “Kill ‘em all, and let God sort ‘em out later” emblazoned across the chest. A lot of us thought that was a great line, horrible in its implications for the victims perhaps, but an appreciated horror for the perpetrators, basically hilarious, and like all punchlines, absolutely true at its center. With so many Viet Nam vets in a fleet that counted success by how many thousands of crabs could be hoisted from the sea and sold to people who boiled them alive, the analogy of crab counts to body counts not lost on anyone.
I never shot a sealion again after that day. But afterwards I had trouble saying anything to the men I knew who did, when I heard about other men on other boats who’d done a little target practice of their own at Amak, or Tombstone Rocks, or Marmot Island. On the most venal level, it was maybe as simple as not being comfortable being a hypocrite, and about glass houses. But it was impossible to despise men I knew were not habitual monsters, and who, like me, had tried on the act of slaughter, like putting on an outrageous costume, to see how it would fit, and come away instead with a knowledge they had not bargained on, a dark awareness about themselves they would have to wear the rest of their lives. I knew that eventually I would come to regret what we had done, and already did as soon as I had pulled the trigger. But we all knew too of the true sadists among us, the guys who instead of regretting the experience, played it back over and over in their minds, savoring it. These were the guys who killed repetitively and compulsively and imaginatively, shooting seagulls, crushing codfish beneath the hydraulic pot launcher, enjoying the day-long agony of an octopus as it hung on the rail in a noose.
That winter I was twenty one years old, old enough to know the difference between right and wrong, but easily led, and for an hour I had deliberately ignored that difference. I remember thinking as Dean handed me the gun, a kind of moralistic straightening of papers just before I pulled the trigger, that in the grand scheme of things it hardly mattered anyway because, after all, it wasn’t like sealions were going extinct; they were, as far as we were concerned, numberless. As it turned out they were not numberless; but in those days they were without friends.
As we turned the boat north toward our strings of crab pots Kathy, red-eyed and distraught, banged pots around and shot sideways glances at us. She had been one of the original Merry Pranksters, driving with Ken Kesey on the Further bus to see Timothy Leary, and we had up to then been flattered and intrigued when she told us stories about being a hippie in the mid-sixties, and when she read the tarot cards for us on the galley table. But something changed in her that morning, as we had perhaps been changed ourselves, and afterwards we did not see her as we had before, an exotic but essentially harmless migrating bird somehow swept far off course, from the magic bus of San Francisco to the barren islands of the Bering Sea. She had come from somewhere far away and seen us in our own private depravity, and now apparently judged us harshly for it, and Dean and I at least had the grace to be ashamed. Gary and Dave seemed oblivious though, and over the next few days they baited Kathy by pretending to shoot each other and then flopping on the floor of the galley and barking like sealions. But even as she made our meals she became a silent presence in the galley, not meeting our eyes, and we all were suddenly nervous around her, worried not that she would turn us into Fish and Game (we had never heard of anyone being prosecuted for shooting sealions), but somehow subliminally aware that she might be capable of calling up some other kind of karma, some piece of the spooky reality she sometimes seemed to be in tune with, a reality that the tarot cards seemed only to be skimming.
I didn’t exactly believe in the tarot cards, but her middle aged gravity, the lines around her eyes, radiated vastly more experience in the world than we had. We knew, at least Dean and I did, that we were being judged by someone whose sensibilities we ultimately respected, even as we acted as if we did not. I remember realizing as she squinted through her cigarette smoke that she knew more than I did, had seen things I had not, had made comparisons and weighed things I was not yet familiar with, and that someday I would know those things too, and they would somehow relate to the shooting of marine mammals. As the trip wore on Kathy spoke less and less, and our interaction with her diminished to eating the food she cooked and saying “Thanks for a good supper,” when we slid out from behind the galley table and went back on deck.
And then one night a week or so after we left Amak Island, I dreamt it was night and we were pulling gear under the glare of the yellow sodium decklights, our yellow raingear glowing, the crab line coming up out of the black water, the flashing drops of water snapping electrically off the line. There were no other boats visible, no moon, no stars, no horizon; only a darkness out past the glow of the lights as immense and complete as interstellar space. We were utterly alone in the Bering Sea. Somehow understood as a pre-condition of the dream was that Kathy had conjured up some kind of ju-ju on us for killing the sealions, and in retaliation for that we had shot her, stuffed her in a crab pot like a codfish hung for bait, and then we had tied the pot door shut, thrown the pot overboard, cut the buoy line, and kept fishing.
And now in the crystalline reality of the dream Bill was bent over the bait box, filling bait jars with chopped herring and I was coiling with my back to the stern and Dean was screaming. I looked at Dean and followed his eyes to the two rows of pots stacked across the stern, and at Kathy crawling across them toward us on her ahnds and knees, strands of kelp and slithering things glistening in her hair hanging wet in her white face, her empty eyesockets crawling with sea lice, limpets and starfish stuck to her neck. Then she was climbing down, crawling across the deck toward us.
I woke screaming, desperately trying to see in the dim light from the galley if Kathy was safely asleep in her bunk six feet away. I got out of my bunk and put my pants on and went up into the wheelhouse where Dean was on watch and sat in a swivel chair next to the chart table and told him about the dream. In the morning Dean and Bill and I talked on deck while we watched Kathy on the other side of the galley porthole, making pancakes for our breakfast. We said nothing to her about my dream, but a week later when we got to Dutch to unload, her bags were lying on her bunk, and as soon as the lines were tight to the fuel dock she carried them out on deck, and we hauled them silently up the ladder with a piece of line. She threw them into a cab, got in and didn’t wave goodbye. We never saw her again.
Years later I saw a movie about John Huston in Africa filming “The African Queen,” how the making of the movie was delayed for weeks while Huston hunted and finally shot an elephant. A reporter, aghast at Huston’s depravity asks, How can you shoot an elephant? Why, it’s just a crime to shoot an elephant. And Huston, played by Clint Eastwood, pulls a cigar out of his mouth and grins crookedly at the reporter. It’s not a crime man, it’s a sin, plain and simple. And by God, I want to commit it. I saw the movie with my wife and could tell by the disgust in her face that she wasn’t really getting what Huston was saying about killing sometimes being more than simply the ending of a life, that whatever the end result and ramifications of the act might be, destruction sometimes came disguised in the mind of the killer as creativity. I sat in the theater next to her and thought of that morning at Amak Island, and said nothing; then, or for a long time after.
For George Brandenburg
I ran into him again at the Elbow Room in Dutch Harbor
before he headed north for another Opilio crab trip.
He’d outlived his rough years
resurfaced in a new marriage
had a son who would turn one in a week
“as happy as I’ve ever been”, he said
and I believed him.
Through the window at the end of the bar
we watched the lights of a boat
follow the wind out of the harbor
disappear behind Priest Rock into the darkness of the open sea.
Five hundred miles away on another island in another ocean
the boy woke warm from sleep in his mother’s arms
on the last morning of his first year.
And as he was rising
his father’s boat was rolling
over in the Pribilofs
in the earth at the bottom of the Bering Sea.
a hard northwest drove the pack ice down from St. George Island
laid it stark across the surface of that part of the ocean
beneath the circling Coast Guard plane
where the boat had sunk.
And when they called and told her
there was nothing there but ice
the plane was flying back in failing light
she leaned over her son and his birthday cake
with it’s frozen sugar frosting waves
and blew the single candle out.
We’ll Fly Away
In February we came off the Slime Banks into Akutan Bay to deliver our tanner crab to the Deep Sea. The processing ship lay in the middle of the bay, a small dense object on the radar screen 10 minutes before we could see the glow of her deck lights through the fog, and then, closing from a hundred yards, the bristling masts and booms, the dark slab of hull in the greasy water.
There were about 30 processing workers and deckhands on the Deep Sea. Our arrival was loaded with social possibility for everyone, the chance to talk to people other than the people we’d been alone with for weeks. Bundled in the same wool and raingear as the men, the half dozen Deep Sea girls stared at us as we pulled up. Usually these girls were just ordinary girls, rendered more attractive by their relative scarcity. But our eyes went to one leaning over the rail, a girl with a delicate face and blonde hair. Dean went up the ladder and talked to her and she asked if we needed a cook. A few hours later, while we were still unloading, she came across the deck of the Deep Sea with her suitcase and climbed down the ladder onto our deck. The processing foreman on the Deep Sea glowered from the wheelhouse above us, but she grinned defiantly back and waved at the other people standing at the rails, an escaped prisoner saluting the inmates left behind.
Elaine threw her suitcase on the other bunk in my stateroom and explored the galley like a cat in a new house, opening cupboard doors and looking in the refrigerator. She chattered about how horrendous life had been on the Deep Sea, about living with five other girls in a tiny stateroom, about the foreman constantly asking her to come down to his stateroom, about the bad food, the once-a-week showers, the broken clothes dryer.
I took her on a tour of the boat: the engine room, the galley, the wheelhouse. She held a strand of hair behind her ear as she bent down to look into the hooded radar screen, and I stared at her half-hidden face, her ear, the curve of her back as she leaned over, her long bluejeaned legs. She was 19 and beautiful, and knew she was beautiful, had always known that. She moved inside a bubble the rest of us watched like voyeurs, and all of us, she and us together, were exquisitely aware of this watching. A tension began vibrating in the air between all of us and a shuffling of relationships between Dean and Bill and I, and Gary, the skipper, even before we untied from the Deep Sea.
Bill and Dean slept in one stateroom up in the forepeak and I slept in the other. By default Elaine got the empty bunk in my stateroom. Sometime that evening we untied from the Deep Sea and headed out of Akutan Bay, back to the Slime Banks, and as we were climbing into our bunks she looked at me, and I knew she had felt me watching her as I’d taken her around the boat that afternoon. The question that had been in my mind now hung between us in the narrow room. I looked at her but said nothing more than "see you in the morning," and the moment passed. Lying alone in my sleeping bag, I could see the blonde hair on her pillow, her face turned away and nearly hidden by the blanket. The boat began to roll slightly and I braced an elbow and a knee against the bulkhead as we left the sheltered waters of the bay and headed north into the open sea. Tomorrow, I thought, I’ll say something, tell her.
The next day I waited for a sign from her, but Elaine never said what she might have thought about me and her, and though she was always friendly, in the days that followed she looked away whenever I caught her eye and she was always asleep when we came in from the last string of pots late at night. I decided to believe that nothing had yet been decided between us, and that there were chances without number still to come in this life I had hardly begun to live.
Elaine chatted to all of us in the galley about her high school friends back home in Seattle, her dog, her dentist father. Sometimes, as Bill and I went out on deck, Dean would linger in the galley behind us, rummaging around in the dryer looking for clean gloves while Elaine stirred something on the stove. One morning he came out on deck a couple minutes after us and quietly started filling bait jars, and Bill looked over at him and laughed. "Helping her butter the toast in there, Dean?"
Dean laughed but he kept his eyes on the chopped herring in the bait box. He took a drag on his cigarette and blew the smoke sideways out of his mouth. "Fuck you, Bill. Fuck both you guys."
Bill and I laughed but Dean was quiet the rest of the morning.
One night I came down from my watch in the wheelhouse and pulled some ice cream out of the fridge and put it on the counter. The two staterooms were dark and the only illumination in the galley was the light over the stove, and briefly, the light from the fridge when I opened the refrigerator door. At that moment Elaine came out of the bathroom.
"Hey Elaine. Want some ice cream?" I asked. "We got that chocolate praline."
But she ignored me and went past me into the stateroom. I put some ice cream in a bowl and put the carton back in the freezer. I thought maybe she was just sleepy. But when I turned back around she was leaning against the doorframe of our stateroom, her arms folded across her chest. I could see now that she’d been crying.
"You okay? Sure you don’t want some?" I asked.
"No. Thanks." She pushed a strand of hair behind her ear and looked down. "How long have you known Bill?"
"I dunno. Since January, I guess, when him and Dean and Gary flew back up after Christmas."
"He’s not very nice."
"What do you mean?"
She wiped her eyes, first one, then the other with the heel of one hand and she looked at me again but she didn’t say anything, and then she turned and went into the dark stateroom. I stood with the bowl and spoon in my hands, tasting the chocolate in my mouth. The boat rolled and I watched the cups hanging under the cupboard swing back and forth on their hooks. The light from the stove hit them and cast their shadows, a row of dark shapes, across the table onto the bulkhead between the galley and our stateroom. I went back up into the wheelhouse and wondered at first what we had been talking about, and then, if Elaine would leave us.
But in the morning the galley was bright with sunlight coming in the galley porthole, and though she was quiet at breakfast, Elaine was chattering again by dinner time, and things seemed as before.
The next night, while Elaine and I slept in our separate bunks, Bill came down from his watch in the wheelhouse and shut the door to our stateroom. We rarely shut the doors to the rooms. When Bill got Dean up for his watch, he said nothing and let Dean come to his own conclusions about the closed door. In the morning Elaine seemed unaware of what the closed door might mean in the sign language of the boat, but Dean glowered silently at his plate as she put the French toast on the table and was the first one on deck after breakfast, ferociously hacking at a frozen block of herring with an iron ice chopper by the time Bill and I got out there.
At first Bill and Gary and I thought this was a good joke, but by the next day I was uncomfortable seeing Dean exposed for feeling what I felt myself but had been lucky enough to have kept hidden, and after a couple days it seemed cruel and after that I kept the door open at night. I knew then, I think all of us knew, that none of us would be sleeping with Elaine on the boat, that none of us, including Elaine, was smart enough to pull that off without disaster. No one said anything, but Dean relaxed and started joking around again and Bill stopped teasing him and things went easier on deck. Elaine remained the same, smiling and laughing whenever we were in the galley, just as she had from the beginning. But at night I looked over at her lying in her bunk and I thought about what might still be possible in Seattle after the season, away from the narrow bunks and the open doors. She had not yet said no to anything.
Elaine couldn’t cook. She tried and failed to make rice in the microwave, couldn’t get the vegetables and the potatoes and the meat to come out done at the same time, served chicken black on the outside and frozen in the middle. We didn’t care. She was a distraction from the work and the ocean and each other, and she was always unremittingly cheerful. In some genuine place inside her, life was good and everyone in the world was as beautiful as she was and we loved her for that.
One morning she burst out on deck carrying a tray of half-burnt chocolate chop cookies in one hand and a cheap plastic camera in the other, the smell of the cookies enveloping us in a warm cloud of chocolate and grease. Gary called down on the loudhailer and said we could take a break, we had a 20-minute run to the next string.
Elaine put the cookies on the bait table and began taking pictures of the seagulls floating in the air off the stern, the crab pots on deck, and us, clowning with crabs and codfish and writhing octopi and cookies in our gloved hands, grinning, our backs to the empty horizon. I looked at her and suddenly knew that she was seeing the world as we had seen it once, as we still saw it in those moments of clarity when we weren’t simply counting the pots left in the string and the hours remaining until we could eat and crawl back in our bunks. In the smell of the cookies and the joy in Elaine’s face I saw again the sea and the sky and this life, sacred and whole.
The moment lingered and I knew I would remember her as she put the camera to her eye and told us to smile. What none of us knew then, what would take me years to understand, was that the golden thing she was seeing, the natural majesty we all saw around us, would not translate through the lens into something she could carry away from the Bering Sea to show the people back home. The pictures would come back with some sky, some ocean, a few birds, some scraggly hollow-eyed guys in raingear, static images not much worth looking at. The people she would show them to would riffle through them and put them aside. I would know this eventually, after the seasons and seasons that followed that winter on the Calista Sea, but the world was still too new to me to understand that then. The smell of the cookies and diesel smoke and morning ocean tang, the sublime aliveness of it all, would blow away, unreachable even an hour from the snapping of the shutter except in memory or dreams. We held up our cookies and tried to look heroic and the moment fluttered into the wake behind us.
One night after we had come into Akutan Bay to unload to the Deep Sea, we skiffed across the bay to the village. Akutan, a community of 300 people featured no other cultural amenities except a bar, named, despite the lack of any roads on the island, the Roadhouse. It was operated by a pockmarked Aleut guy named Tommy McGlashen who squinted from under a shock of straight black hair, took our money, and said little. That winter the Roadhouse featured two kinds of alcohol, Gallo red wine poured from gallon jugs and Carling Black Label beer in cans. Gary and Bill and I stuck with the beer. Dean and Elaine drank the wine. We drank until early in the morning, the jukebox roaring with Creedence Clearwater Revival and Jimmy Buffet and the Eagles. We took turns dancing with Elaine while a few old men from the village watched us from their barstools, and we stood beside the jukebox with our beers when it wasn’t our turn to dance with her. Sometime after two in the morning Tommy McGlashen turned on the lights and rapped on the bar with an empty beer can. "Okay, you got to all go home. Bar’s closed. Go home now!"
The old men stepped off their barstools and we put on our coats, but then one last quarter’s worth of music flipped onto the turntable, The Grateful Dead playing "Ripple." We stopped in the open door, the sunlit music filling the room, and looked down the hill at the boats lying in the starlit bay, the black water and white mountains. Then Dean shut the door and we turned back into the room. The four of us danced together in a circle with Elaine, taking turns twirling her under our arms and handing her off to each other between the pushed-back tables, the rubber soles of our Xtra-Tuffs scuffing softly on the plywood floor in time to the acoustic bass line, the brushing acoustic guitars, and some piece of the wholeness of the world was present in the room with us. The old men sucked the last of their beers and Tommy threw the empties into the trash and then the song ended and we left the warm beers we had carried through the song on the tables, and Elaine, exhausted, leaned into Dean’s chest and he put his arms around her and helped her get her arms into the sleeves of her coat while he held her.
We stumbled down the hill to the dock and climbed into the skiff, and Dean was slurring and Elaine was reduced to giggling. Gary ran the outboard across the bay, the stars reflecting off the black mirror of the water around us, the lights of the village strung along the shore like beads, little drops of saltwater twinkling over the bow as we headed into the glow of the deck lights of the Calista Sea. By the time we got Elaine into the bench seat around the galley table, she was unconscious and in the fluorescent glow of the galley light her skin was pale, almost blue. Bill and Dean went into their stateroom and passed out. Gary went upstairs to his captain’s stateroom and I could hear him moving around up there, bumping into walls and slamming doors. I carried Elaine into her bunk and got into my own bed.
A few minutes later Gary came stumbling down into the galley and stood in the doorway to our stateroom, holding onto the doorframe to keep from pitching onto the floor. Elaine was lying face up, her mouth open, one arm wrapped around the top of her head, the other hanging out of the bunk. She snored softly. Gary stared at her and then lurched into the room, holding onto the top bunk to keep from falling.
"Hey Gary," I said. "What’s going on?"
He kept staring down at Elaine. "Shit. Mind your own business," he said. "Go back to sleep."
He picked Elaine’s arm up and put it inside the sill of the bunk and sat on the edge of her bunk. He pulled her blanket down to her waist and leaned over, bracing his arm across her face against her pillow.
"Hey Gary. You better be cool," I said.
"Fuck you. Go back to sleep," he said. His face was inches from Elaine’s, his breath moving a strand of hair across her forehead. I started getting out of my bunk. He looked over at me.
"Ah, fuck it," he said, and rolled out of the bunk and into the galley and up the stairs. He banged around up in his room for a few minutes and then it was quiet. I got out of my bunk and pulled the blanket back up to Elaine’s chin and then I listened to the sound of her breathing and the water outside on the steel hull. The end of the season and summer seemed a long way off, but the image came to me of sitting in the sun somewhere with her, and I fell asleep thinking of that, like hot food and sleep after a long cold day on deck.
Elaine stayed on board for a month and then our regular cook came back and Elaine flew out of Dutch and home. A letter came addressed to "The Calista Sea, Standard Oil Fuel Dock, Dutch Harbor, Alaska." It didn’t say much, just a hello and "I hope your old cook is feeding you good." A couple more letters came addressed to Dean; we saw the envelopes on the galley table after Gary brought them back from the fuel dock office, but Dean squirreled them away as soon as he got them and we never knew what they said. When we got back to Kodiak in June I got off the boat and the other guys kept sailing south to the shipyard in Seattle. The plan was for me to fly down in July and then we’d all help get the boat ready for the Bering Sea king crab season in September.
On the way down, Gary and Bill and Dean tied the boat up to the city dock in Ketchikan and went uptown to get drunk. They ended up in different bars. At some point in the afternoon Dean went back to the boat, pumped out one of the crab tanks and opened an inspection plate over the shaft running under the bottom of the tank to take a look at the intermediate shaft coupling. He left the inspection plate open and went back uptown. Gary came down an hour later and, not realizing Dean had left the plate open, opened the valves to flood the tank to ballast the boat for the last leg of the trip to Seattle. He looked down into the tank to make sure it was filling and went back to his bar. They had planned to leave in the morning.
The water in the tank flowed into the open inspection plate and through the shaft alley and flooded the engine room, killing the auxiliary generator engine. The deck lights dimmed and died. The bow was way down. Somebody called the Coast Guard and they brought some pumps and kept the boat afloat while a shore patrol went looking for the crew. It was a bad scene, Gary and Bill and Dean drunk, standing on the dock being questioned by the Coast Guard. The boat didn’t sink but the engines were totaled. The Native corporation that owned the boat fired them all, and me besides, and hired a new crew to fly up and take over the boat.
When I flew down in July I knew only the barest outlines of this. Dean met me at Sea-Tac. We went looking for food and beer and he told me I was out of a crab job. I considered that and then I asked him the question I’d been thinking about since I’d gotten off the boat in Kodiak.
"So, have you seen Elaine?"
We were driving north on I-5, going past the Boeing plant, the wings of the aircraft parked outside glinting in the sunshine, the traffic on the freeway getting heavy. He had his right hand draped across the top of the steering wheel and didn’t say anything for a minute. He kept his eyes on the car in front of us.
"I called her house when we got down here in June. Her dad told me she got killed in a car crash in May. She was drunk and went off the freeway. There was a big funeral."
I stared out at the guardrails going by, the vertical lines of the stanchions flickering in the late afternoon light like crab boat masts across five miles of empty water.
We spent a week snorting coke and drinking and hanging out at Dean’s house with a parade of crab fishermen and drug dealers and girls whose names we forgot the next day. We talked about going up to see Elaine’s parents, or going to the cemetery to look at the grave, and I think maybe Dean did go to the cemetery after I left, but I never made it, and we never went to see her folks. Every day one of us said, "tomorrow," but then we were too high, or hungover, or busy with something else, and in the back of my mind I knew I didn’t want to see any graves or face anybody’s parents or even talk to Dean about it. In the end it was simply easier to keep putting it off, to remain anonymous, to be an unidentified part of the strange and unknown life Elaine had lived for three months when she had flown off to Alaska. In those days I knew nothing of the language of grief.
I used to see Dean in Dutch Harbor sometimes in the last years before I stopped going out to the Bering Sea. One night we stood in the rain-wet grass in back of the Elbow Room finishing off a gram of coke. It was June and broad daylight at two in the morning, and the rain fell softly around us, silent on the wooden buildings and the old Russian Church, on the crab boats tied up in Iliuliuk Bay. Somehow there really wasn’t much to say. I think we both realized at that moment that we were too old to be standing in the rain snorting cocaine. We had lived beyond a certain horizon in the long-gone imaginings of our 20-year-old minds, and the strangeness of fate hung there with us, unmentioned, unknowable, the simple fact that we had somehow survived the only thing we completely understood.
Dean looked at me from under the wet bill of his hat. "I got a kid now," he said. "She’s in kindergarten."
I told him about my daughter, in first grade in the fall.
"My wife wants me to quit this shit up here and get something down there," he said. "So I can be home. What about you? What are you going to do?"
I said I didn’t know.
I’ve wondered since if he was going to say something then about Elaine — her presence hung there with us in the gray rain with the new green grass slippery around our boots. But he didn’t, and we finished up the coke and went back inside for a last beer before closing time, the brittle optimism of the drug coursing through us.
For a long time after that night, and for years after I quit crab fishing, I actually forgot her name, as if it was just behind something in my mind, like the mountains of Akutan are sometimes hidden behind a snow squall when you come in from the Slime Banks. But then on a rainy windless afternoon in Uganik Bay, on Kodiak Island in July, something cleared away. We had picked the salmon out of the net an hour earlier and the crew guys were taking naps. My daughter was making cookies and I was sitting at the table looking at the water, thinking about a shredded section of web out by the king keg buoy. The smell of the cookies filled the kitchen and it was suddenly a long time ago in the Bering Sea and Dean was saying "Yo, Elaine!" and we were watching her step through the galley door with a plate of burnt chocolate chip cookies. She smiled at us, happy that we were happy, and took a picture of us standing next to the rail in our raingear, bait herring on our gloves, pieces of kelp on our rain-geared legs and arms. Then she hung the camera on a hook next to the hydraulic levers and went back inside to get more cookies.
Dean looked over at me and Bill and grinned and then took the camera and took a picture of himself from arms’ length, his mouth open, a mess of half-chewed cookies spilling over his lips, the kind of picture kids pose for at birthday parties when they’re five.
We are alive, all of us, somehow, even those of us who are no longer here.
The Light on Mission Road
When I think of that winter, or if someone from those days reminds me of something that happened then, I see the snow blowing out of a clear blue January sky, the snow corniced peaks of the Three Sisters rising incandescently over the green spruce trees along Mission Road, the road drifted over with snow and tire tracks in the snow leading into town. There were rainy days, dark December afternoons with low fog blowing through the channel next to the road, when winter in Alaska seemed like a bad joke but then would come that morning when the world was new and full of clear sunlight on the trees, the wind curling off the ridges above town. And even hungover, broke, and lonely, I would remember that I was nineteen years old in Alaska, that the world was large and life was good.
I lived in a stateroom on the fantail of an old steamship, the Queen of the North, that had been hauled into a big ditch they dug out on Mission Road and backfilled in after the ‘64 earthquake, when all the other bars in Kodiak were rubbed out by the tsunami. The rent was $30 a week and a stray cat came around sometimes and when I turned on the light cockroaches would scatter across the rotting carpet with a clicking and rustling like dry leaves on a sidewalk. At night I would wake up in my bunk feeling them crawling on my legs under the covers, or brushing my ears with their antennae, and I never got used to that. A band played in the nightclub upstairs and at night the bass line reverberated through the bulkheads, the curls of peeling paint over the door tremoring rhythmically as if the ship was slamming into icebergs. They played the same set all winter until after awhile I could tell what time it was by the song they were playing. To this day I cannot hear “Smoke On the Water” without remembering instantly the particular smell of that stateroom at eleven o’clock at night, a smell of cigarettes and mold, sweat, and dirty socks. There was something else there too, though I didn’t recognize then what it was, a kind of distilled essence of used up chances, of shot wads, paid for orgasms, and nowhere else to go, the peculiar odor of the end of the line. I thought that was just the way cheap hotels in beached ships smelled, and accepted it as part of the world, like the smell of dogs, or a new car, or spring. And eventually I even came to think of it as a romantic smell, because it was the smell from which the rest of my golden life would spring, and I knew that come April, I would be going fishing and I would never have to smell that stink again.
There was a fishermen’s strike in Kodiak that winter, a refusal by the local crab fishermen to fish for the price the canneries were offering. One night during the strike it was snowing hard and blowing and I was in Tony’s Bar drinking with my friends, all of us recently arrived in Alaska, all of us wanting to get fishing jobs when the strike ended. The room was packed and whenever the door opened wet flakes would swirl in and melt on the floor and on the people standing against the bar. Around eleven, four guys came in and shook themselves off like wet dogs and then stood in a solid nugget of themselves against the bar. “They’re off the Marten” someone said. “They’re tied up at down at Western Alaska Fisheries with 50,000 lbs. of crab.” Maybe the Marten’s crew didn’t know that someone had shot out the radar scanner on the Mariner a few days before simply for going out and setting a load of gear, or maybe they were simply hoping the strike would somehow end by morning so they could unload without any trouble, or maybe they thought that no one would really care enough to make trouble with them. Still, once they were there no one was watching anymore the snow blowing in or the wind that was doing it or the people on the dance floor and the muddy puddle they were dancing in. We all looked at these guys standing at the bar in a little knot, their backs to the crowd, drinking hard, and I wondered how they could just sit there like that, scabs in the middle of a bar full of striking fishermen, ignoring the comments and the stares. Looking back, maybe they simply had nowhere else to go.
But something must have happened at some point, maybe somebody made a call, or something happened to the boat, because around three in the morning the owner came down, a big guy who owned a laundromat and didn’t fish the boat anymore. He hustled his crew out of the bar, the skipper and his three deckhands staggering trailing him drunk through the crowd back out into the storm.
I went back to the Beachcombers late in a cab, Mission Road almost invisible in the snow streaming into the headlights, but in the morning when I went outside the storm was over. The northeast wind had come down and backed around to the northwest and a hard sunlight glinted on the fresh snow. I started walking into town and looking down onto the beach paralleling the road I could see odd drifted over piles along the high water mark from the night before, and odd pieces of wood eddying in the left over storm surge, and at first I didn’t realize what they were. But then down at the point I could see a pile of shattered planking, some of it painted white on one side, bent nails sticking out. In among the pieces of the hull were other things, a kitchen drawer, a book, a yellow Helly Hansen rain jacket, a sodden pillow.
The Marten made it as far as that rock that has a flashing red light on it now, buoy seven, right off Spruce Cape Road where the Coast Guard property line is. The wind was in their faces and full of snow and even if they’d been leaving sober in daylight, they wouldn’t have been able to see past the bow of the boat. The rotating scanner on the wheelhouse roof smothered in a soft frenzy of charged flakes, the radar screen filled with green electrical clutter soon as they cleared the channel, they kept on heading out, nose into the wind, into a rising swell. They ran blind for a mile or so until a wave lifted them up and dropped them on the reef and broke the keel, and it was both the surprise of their lives and totally expected, the logical conclusion to a string of bad choices running back to pulling that first crab pot a week before. All four of them were in the wheelhouse when they hit and three of them got out as the boat was swept off the rock and rolled on its side, and then upside down in the breaking sea. They swam and crawled and were swept back along the hull to the shafts and clung there screaming in pain at the cold, cold, water, arguing about the chances of making it to the beach a quarter of a mile away, feeling the cold taking their lives. Between squalls they could see the kitchen lights in the houses on the road and two of them, the skipper and a deckhand, decided to try before they were too cold to try, one more choice in a night of lousy choices. The deckhand changed his mind a few yards out and turned back for the sure thing of the overturned hull and his friend still hanging on there, to the chance that they could hang on till daylight, but the skipper, twenty four years old, kept swimming for the beach at the bottom of a forty foot cliff. In those conditions, with the wind gusting to sixty and tearing the tops off twenty foot waves, in total darkness except for those lights along the road, measurable distance was only part of the equation, and none of us who heard about it later could imagine even trying to swim across to those cliffs, let alone making it. But in the only piece of good luck all night, at the last possible moment when luck could have done any good, a cop out patrolling thought he saw something, got out of his car and shone his flashlight down the cliff. The skipper had made it ashore and crawled halfway up to a ledge before seizing up in the blowing snow.
We heard they brought him in with the lowest recorded body temperature of anybody who ever lived, but that fact seemed the least surprising part of the whole story. Even recognizing his will to live, and his luck at being found in time, it did not seem possible to us that anyone could be so furiously alive as to survive that night. Hearing the story and seeing him later, we all knew there was more to it, that some fabulous bending of the usual laws of reality had occurred, and that the closest we were going to get to an explanation was the word miracle.
The next summer at the Fourth of July party in Bells Flats, a big slow deckhand named Copacetic Tim called the skipper of the Marten a scab and said he had killed his own crew, that he never should have left the dock that night, should never have gone fishing at all, and we all stood and watched in embarrassed silence while the man put down his beer and beat Copacetic Tim, silently and furiously, the sound of the blows filling the soft summer evening like chunks of meat being dropped on a concrete floor until someone pulled him off.
A few weeks after the Marten sank, I came in late and drunk, and as I was taking my boots off an argument began between two men in the stairwell outside my door. There were drunken arguments, laughter, screams at all hours in that stairwell, and I tried to ignore the angry voices. But then there was a sharp bang, and then two more bangs close together, very close to my door, and I knew it was a pistol out there. The shouting stopped and it was quiet and I wondered if I should get down on the floor with the cockroaches below the level of whatever bullets might yet fly. I waited. Then I heard other people out there, and I turned off the light and got out of the bunk and opened the door a hair and peeped out. A man in a green army field jacket was lying on his right side against the railing that went around the stairwell, facing away from me, and there were people standing looking down at him and kneeling beside him. They rolled him over on his back and his eyes were open but unblinking, and his left arm rolled across his chest and flopped on the floor next to him, the back of his hand hitting the dirty linoleum with a faint slap. I shut the door and kept the light off and lay very quietly on my bunk with my clothes on. The band kept playing upstairs.
The next morning I walked into town down Mission Road with the heatless sun on my back, my shadow ahead of me, pale blue in the tire tracks in the snow. The wind came over the trees on the other side of Potato Patch Lake and the Three Sisters rose beyond them, streamers of snow curling delicately off the ridges. I remember all of that distinctly, the clear cold light and the empty sky, the tire tracks in the snow. And I think now how inevitable it was those pieces of that first winter I wanted to keep, the light, the sky, the newness of the vision of those brilliant mountains over the trees, would always be incandescently lit somehow too with the smell of that room, the sight of that man’s arm lying beside him in its faded green sleeve, and with the wreckage on the beach beside Mission Road, covered in fresh snow.
The Things You Need
You need Goodyear Extra Tuffs boots- two pairs for when the ankles get holes from being folded down to dry. Two sets of orange Grunden's raingear, jacket and pants. Dutch Harbor brand gear is OK too, they even have pockets now. But the hoods on the Helly Hansen jackets are too small for some guys, and the dark green color is invisible at night in the water if you go over. If anything happens. Nothing from West Marine will last one good day. If it looks like something you'd wear on a sailboat, forget it. Even on the reinforced Grunden's the knees will go out in a few weeks, climbing into the pots, climbing up on the stack, hefting hundred pound coils of line into the pot with your knee. The crabs will grab the cuffs. The sleeves will catch on the corners of pots. The picking hook will tear the sleeve to the shoulder, and it will happen a minute after you walk out on deck in a brand new jacket, the smell of orange plastic fresh in the wind, the seventy dollar price tag still flapping on the collar as you tear it off in disgust.
You need neoprene wristers, like the sleeves of a divers dry suit, at least two pairs so there’s always warm ones in the dryer. A couple dozen cotton glove liners. A case of green neoprene gloves, a hundred dollars a dozen, with the long cuffs that go up under the sleeves of your rainjacket so the water runs down your arm and off your fingers. You need them because the dryer will make them brittle. Because thousands of spiny opie crab shells will scuff the rubber off the finger tips. Because a hundred miles of line will come out of the crab block every day and abrade the notch between your right thumb and index finger like a fast river cutting through soft rock. Because at the end of the trip half the lefts will still be new in the drawer under your bunk and all the rights will be trashed in a box in the entryway, and you will pick through them every morning looking for the ones with the smallest holes.
You need a wool stocking hat, though it will get wet and freeze and weigh so much your neck will hurt. A military tank helmet liner, with the little strap that snaps under your chin for your ears in February working up against the ice pack in the Pribilofs. A neoprene face mask for when it gets really cold, when the ice fog starts moving across the water in those spooky little wisps. An insulated Mustang suit for working on top of the crab pot stack in the wind, for chopping ice off the rails, for setting the anchor at two in the morning behind St. Paul when it’s blowing fifty. Make sure it’s the kind with the inflatable collar that has a mouth tube to blow it up, that will keep your head out of the water if anything happens, and a CO2 cartridge that goes off automatically, hopefully, if you are unconscious. If anything happens.
You need lots of hats, billed caps with the logos of bars and canneries and equipment companies. Sometimes hats are lucky, but you will not keep them. They will blow off in the wind when you look up at Coast Guard C-130's going over, get ground up in the bait chopper by your friends for a joke, dropped between the dock and the boat while drunk, taken by girlfriends for souvenirs, lost.
You need a pair of uptown jeans for the Elbow Room. A set of Carharts for doing gear work in town. Thick polypropylene socks, all of one pattern so you know whose are whose when they come out of the dryer. Felt boot liners. Those little blue bootie inserts. Sweatpants and hooded sweatshirts, enough to always have a dry set to put on. Lots of cotton T- shirts for changing out of between strings of gear, when you soak them through with your sweat. Underwear.
You need a knowledge of cookery. The ability to learn how to change the oil on a Caterpillar 3298. An appreciation for dawn. A respect for night. Books about anything. Money. Your toothbrush. Extra strength Tylenol. Kneepads. A Walkman. Jimi Hendrix for good days and Hank Williams for bad ones. Paper for letters. Stamps to mail them. A calling card for the phone on the dock in Akutan. The numbers of people who will answer that phone late at night, who will listen to you breathe when you forget what you wanted to say, who will know without being told. Pictures of those people. A calendar. The memory of dry land, summer, trees, and the smell of your woman. A piece of her clothing in case you forget. Your plans for the future. A plane ticket home.