The steel shell of the factory kept out the rain, but little else. The wind came off the water, flowed across the dock and through the open doors. Inside, the workers could feel the damp air on their faces as they leaned over the fish line.
The headers stood at the front of the table. They were both big men with full beards, and they faced each other across the line. Rex was balding with a trailing ponytail tied up in a knot. The other, Al, was thin, dark haired, with half-open eyes. A mound of salmon rose between them.
The headers lifted their knives while reaching for the fish. Each man picked up a salmon by the gills and held it upside-down against the table before bringing down the blade. With a quick turn of the knife, the head popped off. The header pushed the fish down the line, and threw the head into a bucket at his feet. All through the day and into the twilight, the heads piled up by the thousands. In one long day, the headers could decapitate five thousand Alaskan salmon.
Simon stood with the other gutters in the middle of the line, waiting for the headless fish. His knife was small and thin, just the right size to slip under the skin and up through the middle. After the slicing, he stuck his forefinger into the belly cavity and with a quick twisting motion, he ripped out the innards. His gloves made it hard to grip the flesh and harder still to get his fingers inside the body. He threw the guts into a stream of cold water that washed the debris down the table.
Most of the gutters on the fish line were women. Small hands were better for the job. They were all seasonal workers, like Simon, up from the Lower 48 for ten to twelve weeks. These women spent their winters raising kids, tending farms, driving school buses, or working at Walmart, but they headed north each summer for salmon season. The headers, however, were Alaskans, working from salmon season, to herring, to king crab and through to lingcod, and then finally collecting unemployment through the dark, drunken winters.
Simon shifted his feet in his rubber boots. Icy water dripped constantly off the table. Some of the women stood with their feet in buckets of hot water, which they refilled on break. Simon had never seen a man stand in the buckets, and he would not be the first, no matter how cold his toes got.
The pile of fish dwindled to nothing, with Rex beating out Al for the last fish. He was on fire, heading two for every one of Al’s. Simon was sure that if he were a header, he wouldn’t be so anxious to finish the work that quickly. Not when you were paid by the hour and they could let everyone go home early if they finished all the fish for the day.
Simon hung his rubber apron on one of the hooks outside the breakroom door. The black flies landed, feasting on the bits of entrails. They had 15 minutes to warm up before they had to return to the line.
“Dude, how’s the love life?” Rex asked as Simon filed into the break room.
Simon shrugged. “None to speak of.”
Rex was always talking of the women he was screwing or was hoping to screw. He was a regular Alaskan, one of the few who had been born here. He seemed to enjoy needling the summer workers — especially the ones who were there for the first time, like Simon.
“I think that girl in the egg room has a thing for young Simon,” Rex said to no one in particular. He sat down at one of the tables and fired up a Marlboro.
“Not my type,” Simon answered.
“She’s got legs like a gazelle. What’s not to like about that?” Rex said, blowing smoke though his closed teeth. That was pretty poetic for Rex. He made a lot of comments about women’s bodies, but this one stood out for a lack of crudity.
Two women sat down at the far end of the table and one pulled out a deck of cards. They were cousins from Nebraska, and they always played rummy on break. Simon wondered what the other workers would think if he told them about the person he was hoping to make his lover. It would probably stop the card playing. Rex would certainly have something to say about it.
Charlie, a high school friend, had dared him to come with him to Alaska. Make a fortune, see the wilderness, meet a grizzly, that was the way he’d talked about it. Something like a buddy movie, with Charlie as the lead and Simon as sidekick.
Simon could do sidekick. He was funny, everyone said so, and he was fun to hang around with. Simon had honed his sarcastic act in ninth grade, when he was left behind at five foot while the other boys had growth spurts. He hadn’t grown much since then, either, and the joking had hardened each year. This trip was supposed to be a chance to remake himself. Little, funny guys don’t do big bold things like spend the summer in Alaska working a fish line.
But within a couple of weeks, Charlie had run off with a waitress to Homer, and from there Charlie and the girl had headed out on a fishing boat for the rest of the summer. Simon didn’t feel like tagging along, so he’d stayed at the cannery.
“Too experienced for you?” Rex asked, taking another draw on his cigarette.
“Too skinny,” Simon answered, and he turned to check his locker, one of a few dozen that lined the walls of the break room. He could keep the banter going with Rex. Keep his attention on the women, and off himself. It had worked all summer.
Simon opened it and felt through the clothes for his wallet. He pulled out a dollar for the vending machine. A few M&Ms would keep him going.
“You like a meaty girl?”
“You could say that,” Simon answered.
“I once knew this stripper,” Rex said. “She was amazing. She must have weighed two hundred pounds. To watch her move, it was like watching a linebacker on hormones. Her flesh was a work of art, really. The thighs and ass on her are something I still think about. And this was twenty years ago.”
Simon tried to picture what Rex might have looked like as a young man. Before the teeth turned yellow from smoking and the hair was gone. But there was no way to see him as anything other than a disgusting guy, even when he was young.
“Then I saw her once standing at the bus stop. She didn’t look so good. It was raining, and she had a big old tent of a raincoat on. Looked like somebody’s housekeeper. But naked, with music, she was a goddamn artist.”
“Well, I gotta take a leak,” Simon said. He never said take a leak in Cleveland but things were different up here, and you had to act different.
The bathroom was immaculate, the only spot in the factory where blood and guts and fish scales didn’t seem to seep in. He lingered over washing his hands, picking the bits of fish blood from under his nails.
When he got back to the line, another load of salmon had been dumped at the head of the table. His boots were still cold, even with the break, and so were his toes.
The headless fish slid in front of him, one after another, and he slipped his blade into the opening in the belly and sliced up toward the gills. When he found bright red eggs inside, he stripped the skeins out and threw them into the basket in the middle of the table. The egg girls came and collected the baskets every half-hour and carried them up a small wooden staircase to the loft.
A plywood railing separated the egg loft from cannery floor below, and the girls who worked there could watch over everything. Their hair was never filled with bits of flesh at the end of the day, and they didn’t stink of fish. They spent hours upon hours packing the roe into wooden boxes, salting the eggs, and sealing the containers. Two Japanese men oversaw the egg workers, and they never spoke with the workers on the line.
When the shift was over, Simon showered at the cannery. He did not like bringing the fish smell back to his apartment. He walked the four blocks to the low-rise apartment building, passing a half-dozen bars on the way. To Simon that seemed to sum up Alaska. From every corner in town you could glimpse the bay surrounded by a ring of mountains, but it seemed most people spent their time hiding within the dark walls of a bar.
The town had grown up around the waterfront and was laid out a in an orderly grid, a dozen blocks in either direction. At one end was the harbor, where a fleet of fishing boats docked next to the cannery, and at the other was that lone road heading out to the mountains.
Simon cooked up some macaroni and cheese on his hotplate. There was no stove in the apartment, just a small refrigerator and a cabinet for cups and glasses. A fold-out couch filled the room. Simon sat on the edge of the unmade bed, and ate his food out of the pot. He was always hungry after work. The cold and the standing took a toll. He just wanted to get something in his stomach.
He was washing out the pot in the sink when he heard a knock. Lots of the folks from the cannery lived in these furnished apartments for the summer. Sometimes someone needed something –a can opener, extra glasses. But the girl from the egg room stood outside his door.
“Laura, what’s up?” he asked.
“I was just wondering if you wanted to have a drink.”
She smiled and Simon felt exhaustion come over him.
“I’m kind of tired.”
“A drink can wake you up.” She peered past him into the apartment.
“You want to come in? It is kind of a mess.”
“Sure, I brought something, so we don’t have to go out.” She held up a bottle of Jameson’s that she’d hidden behind her back. He opened the door, and she slid past him over to the kitchen area. She grabbed a couple of glasses from the drying rack and set them on the counter. Smiling, she poured a large shot into each glass.
“Let me fold this up so we have a place to sit,” Simon said as he lifted the end of the sofa bed. “It gets stuck.” He pushed hard on the top to try to make it fold. It stood up straight, nearly brushing the ceiling.
“You’re funny,” she said as she watched him. “Most guys rush to pull the bed out when I come over.”
He looked at her and watched her sip the whiskey, a smile on her face.
So this is how it was. A few drinks and then sex. He had had sex with a girl once before, after a football game. He was out of high school, but still hanging around with a crowd of seniors. He’d seen her around, and she ended up next to him in the grandstand. She’d passed her flask to him, and at half time told him she was ready to split. She’d had an old Toyota Corolla parked at the edge of the parking lot.
She’d asked him to walk her to the car, and then offered him a ride. He could hear the whooping and hollering from the fans over a touchdown as she undressed. It seemed like the right thing at that time. But he wasn’t feeling that lonely tonight.
“You’re not really my type,” he said.
“I have heard that before, but after a couple of drinks, I’m usually everyone’s type.”
“It’s okay, Laura, you don’t have to do that.”
The bed finally cooperated and bent in half. He pushed hard and folded it into the frame. He grabbed the cushions and put them back on the couch.
She brought over the drinks.
“I guess I just felt like being with someone, and you popped into my head. You’re different. I like that.”
He shook his head. He wondered what Laura meant by different, what she could tell about him, just from watching him gut fish from overhead. Some people were sensitive like that. They knew stuff without really explaining how they knew it. He’d seen it before. His friend Angela was like that. She’d figured him out before he’d even figured himself out.
She joined him on the couch and handed him his drink. “Do you like the egg room? It seems less gross.”
“It could be, but you have two jokers trying to grab your ass all day, which is pretty gross itself. I tell them not to, but they don’t seem to give a shit. Or they don’t understand.”
“Did you tell Rex? He’d kick their asses.”
“Really, I don’t think he’d stick his neck out for me.”
Simon took a sip of the whiskey. Maybe this is what he’d been missing up here. A couple of drinks at the end of the night was a good idea.
“What happened to your friend? The dark-haired guy?”
Simon noticed she had nice eyes, a dark green that was different from most eyes.
“Ran off with a waitress from the Moose Tracker.”
“I hate that bitch.”
Laura laughed hard, practically spitting whiskey.
“Left you stuck here with his half of the rent?”
He shrugged. He hadn’t had a real conversation with anyone since Charlie had taken off. Laura seemed nice enough. “This whole trip was his idea. I didn’t plan to be up here doing this on my own.” Simon settled back on the couch and closed his eyes for a minute. Suddenly he missed someone, and it wasn’t Charlie. It was Angela. She had warned him not to come to Alaska. She’d said it was a mistake to follow someone like that to somewhere so remote. You don’t know what he is really like, she’d told him. It won’t end well.
They’d been in her basement, watching an old black and white movie on TV and smoking pot. They had to stand on their tiptoes and blow the smoke out the small basement window, or the aroma would rise up throughout the ductwork of the house. He thought it was the weed talking, or that she was just jealous. She was stuck in that nursing school she had enrolled right after graduation. Maybe she’d wanted to get away from home too. He should call her. Maybe he would call her tonight.
“Well, she’s got the rep of a boyfriend stealer,” Laura said. “I guess she’s not too particular about which kind she’s taking.”
“He wasn’t, we weren’t, you know, like that,” Simon said, his eyes still closed.
“You and me, we’re the same. Following people who turn out to be no good. It happens to me all the time.” She started with that laugh again, a kind of a snort that made her sound more drunk than she probably was. It was deep and guttural and something about it scared Simon.
He took a long sip of the whiskey.
“My ex moved me out of my parents house and into his trailer, back in Omaha,” she said. “It was a whirlwind, supposed to be a fairy tale, happily ever after kind of bullshit. He was dealing out of there, I didn’t know. I was his cover, I guess. He split right before he police raided the place. They busted in right in the middle of the nights. The electric was off by then, so it was pitch dark and they came in with flashlights and guns. Scared the holy hell out of me. I thought I was going to die.”
Simon kept his eyes shut. “But you didn’t.” he said.
“No, here I am.”
“Are you hungry?” she asked. “I could eat a horse right now. But food is so fucking expensive up here. And I can’t choose food over liquor. A girl has to have her priorities.”
Simon opened his eyes. She sat there her head down, looking at her manicured nails. Bright pink, neatly trimmed.
“How do you keep those so nice?” he asked, gesturing to her fingers.
“Oh, I’m going to cosmetology school in the fall. I always do my own nails and hair, it is kind of my thing.” She smiled at him and shrugged her shoulders.
Suddenly he realized he was hungry too, and he did not want this conversation to end. “Let’s get a steak. I’m buying. I feel like eating something that doesn’t come out of a box.”
“You’re alright, Simon. Most guys don’t even buy me a steak after we do it. You are like the opposite of every other guy up here.”
The meal was mediocre, not the feast he’d been hoping for, considering how much it cost. Normally Simon would have been nasty about it, pointing out the greasy plate it was served on, and the burnt fries.
But Laura seemed to enjoy the meal, and Simon didn’t want to spoil it. She kept licking her lips, like she hadn’t eaten in weeks.
They split a pitcher of beer. Laura told him about all of the men she’d slept with at the plant, from quiet Al to the farmboy from Iowa who built the cardboard boxes for shipping fish.
Simon was moderately drunk by the time they walked back to his apartment, drunk enough not to mind when Laura hung onto his arm to keep herself steady. She tried to follow him up the stairs, but he said she needed to go home. He was tired and they had work in the morning.
“Okay, I know when I’m not wanted. Fuck off, and I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Is that how you say goodnight?”
“Who says it’s goodnight? I might be back later.”
“Back from where?”
“Go home, go to bed.”
“Don’t worry, I will. Maybe just not in that order,” and she broke into that snorting laugh.
He brushed his teeth but was too tired to make the bed. He lay down on the unopened couch, and pulled the blanket over himself.
Simon lay on the couch and wondered if Laura would turn up at his apartment later, waking him with that crazy laugh. He would have to fight to bring the bed back out. He wasn’t going to sleep on the floor for her. It was a funny idea, the two of them sleeping there together, side by side on the broken couch. She’d probably keep him up all night with snoring. She’d hog the bed, certainly.
Unlike Charlie, who had made his bed on the floor with his sleeping bag from the first night they had moved in. “You take that piece of metal junk,” he’d said to Simon. “I’m more comfortable here.”
Charlie had seemed comfortable, too. He’d slept all night without a sound. Simon had listened from the foldout couch. There was a glow to the room from the twilight outside. Charlie’s body looked so small wrapped in that sleeping bag, and he’d slept almost silently, just a slight wheezing breath. It had been years since Simon had been on a sleepover. The last time had been at a friend’s birthday party when he was 13. He’d started feeling himself get hard then as the other boys climbed into their sleeping-bags around him. He’d turned away from them to face the wall.
Simon was worried that people at the plant would be talking about him and Laura the next morning. Someone could have seen them having dinner at the bar or walking home together. He didn’t want to fend off any ribbing, and he couldn’t endure an inquisition by Rex.
But he didn’t have to worry. All anyone could talk about was the grizzly.
It had showed up outside one of the bars around 6 a.m., strolling down the street like it was on its way for a drink. The bartender had shot it with the rifle he kept behind the bar. He aimed right through the window and pulled the trigger, shattering glass across the floor and into the parking lot. The bear was wounded and ran off. Now some ranger from Fish and Wildlife was tracking it.
“One fucking pissed-off grizzly,” Rex said that morning in the break room, “You don’t want to run into that motherfucker at night on the street without a gun! You gotta a gun, Simon?”
“Might get one now,” he answered.
“Nothing worse than the smell of bear. Put the fear of god in you. I’m not talking about those puny black bears you got down below. I’m talking grizzly. Smells worse than shit. Smells like a killer that hasn’t bathed in a year. It is a smell that will just freak you when you are walking alone in the woods without a gun.”
Simon wondered if that would be an appropriate end for Rex, to be killed by a pissed-off, shot-up grizzly. He may not have done the shooting, but he’d done plenty to piss off others.
Laura and Simon developed a routine. She would stop by his apartment around nine, and they’d have dinner together, either out and paid for by Simon, or at his apartment cooked up on the hot plate. Drinks, of course, were part of the evening. She came up with some kind of alcohol, but no more Jameson’s. Cans of beer and bottles of cheap vodka were more the norm. She knew the difference, too, between the good stuff and the rest. She talked about the night she’d drunk 18-year-old Glenmorangie at an airport bar. Someone had bought her a shot for her 19th birthday, and the bartender had given her an education on single malt.
Simon asked her how she had rustled up the Jameson’s in the first place, and why she had wanted to share it with him. She wouldn’t explain where it came from, and he wondered if she’d lifted it from some man’s apartment. But she told him why she chose him. “You looked like you didn’t really drink,” she said, laughing. “More for me.”
Late at night, Simon would collapse on the fold-out couch and Laura would head off to find a cozier place. He had no idea where she lived. The town was small. There weren’t that many places to go. He lay in bed and wondered where she was, and if she was OK.
But the next morning, no matter how much she drank, she was at the egg room at the appointed hour. Sometimes she wore her hair in pigtails and looked like a schoolgirl. He learned she had moved back in with her parents after the breakup with her boyfriend and was working up here for her second summer. Her plan was to save up money for school, but she wasn’t sure if she would be going back.
“Hair dressing? I think it can wait,” she explained. “It’s not like there’s a shortage of people to do color and cuts.”
“I think you should be a men’s barber,” Simon said. “You could work in one of those old-fashioned places with the striped pole out front. That’s better than a stuffy salon.”
Laura never asked about his plans after the summer. And they never mentioned Charlie.
The night had started like the others – hot dogs from the hot plate, with beer and pretzels on the side. Simon and Laura sat on a towel in his apartment and called it a picnic. But he’d gotten a bottle of his own. Jack Daniels. That was the first drink he’d ever had, at fourteen, stolen from his parents’ liquor cabinet.
“I think I may have to get drunk tonight,” he said and lifted his paper cup.
“Why tonight?” she asked.
“No reason. No reason except this.” He held up a postcard showing a photo of the Homer spit, a curlicue of land that stretched through a bay toward towering mountains. He passed it to Laura and she read it.
“Real fucking nice.”
“Can you believe it?”
“What do you expect from a guy who would run off with a whore?”
“You are one to be calling someone a whore,” he said, taking another sip. He stretched out on the floor and closed his eyes. The picnic wasn’t so appealing now.
“Don’t start with me. Who do you think you are, my father?”
“No, not your daddy, although I can appreciate you might want to know who he is.”
“Fuck off, what’s wrong with you?”
He’d found the card in the mailbox when he’d gotten home from work. Occasionally his mother sent him notes about the family. That was the only mail he received. But there it was, with just seven words: “Having a great time! Come visit! Charlie.”
“You’re too sensitive,” Laura said. “You need to get your own damn post card and sent it back. This is what you write: I am banging a beautiful girl from the egg room, who is on her way to be a model in L.A., and I doubt I’ll have time to visit you, you asshole.”
“A model, really?”
“I might just skip cosmetology school. Do you think I’m beautiful?”
“As beautiful as anyone, I guess.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means I’ve spent too many hours staring at dead fish and Rex’s beard to know what looks beautiful anymore.” He closed his eyes and tried to think of what beauty looked like. He thought of Charlie’s face, the dark curls, the dark lashes.
“All I see is fish scales and guts and swarming flies.”
“I remind you of fish guts? That’s disgusting.”
“In a good way,” he said laughing. But when he opened his eyes, she was standing up. She refilled her paper cup, and took it with her when she left.
Lunch was a bag of apples and sliced cheese. He had no bread in the apartment to make his normal two sandwiches, so he had to go with what he had. Simon was all about saving money now. At least if he could make it back home with a wad of cash, he would have something to show for the summer.
He sat in the break room and watched the rummy game while eating the cheese and apples in bites. He looked over an old newspaper, doing the crossword in his head, without a pencil, and he tried to build a wall of silence between himself and the others.
Then Laura popped her head in the door.
“Sweetie,” she said, and four men lifted their heads and turned to look at her, including him. She stared straight at him. “I think I left my brush at your apartment. Can you bring it in tomorrow?”
She was smiling her sweet, farm girl smile, but Simon wasn’t falling for it.
“Your hair looks pretty good without it. Maybe brushing is overrated for you,” he said.
“You’d have to be a lot more fashionable than that before you can comment on my hairstyle,” she said, gesturing with one hand at his clothing and laughing. The men in the break room laughed too,
Screw her, if she thinks she is going to make fun of him in front of this crowd.
“You might want to check the mirror. You aren’t looking as gorgeous as you think. A little makeup might help,” he said.
“Just bring me my fucking brush, OK?” And she disappeared from the doorway, as if she were expected somewhere else, but he knew there was nowhere to go but out to the dock or back to the egg loft.
If he was bringing the brush in, it meant she wasn’t coming over. She wasn’t coming over again, maybe. He hadn’t meant to be so sarcastic last night. It was that post card. She seemed to remember this morning to be pissed off. And to play out that scene in front of the whole crew, that was deliberate. She was a piece of work, trying to get him all riled up in front of the others.
Well, he’d bring that brush in and parade up and down the factory with it, waving it like a flag. He could play that game, too.
It wasn’t until later that night, after he had his Ramen noodles and a bottle of ginger ale, that he got to missing her. She wasn’t coming over with a bottle of beer to split. She was probably off drinking it somewhere by herself, liquoring herself up before her nightly forage for food or love.
Simon sat on his couch until he couldn’t sit anymore, and then he went out.
He walked down the street, as if he were going to head into one of the bars, as if he were going to look for her, or for someone. There could possibly be one other boy in town as lonely as he was. Could he be out now looking for someone as well? Simon doubted it. Even if there was a person out there for him, how could he find him, among the drunks and fish workers and laborers drawn to this strange corner of the earth. Maybe Simon was just supposed to exist like a ghost, reading the postcards and carrying the brushes for the people who really did live the world.
He headed down the main street and heard shouting coming from the place on the corner, where the window was still boarded up from the gunshot at the grizzly. Simon had never liked going to bars alone, and he wasn’t about to start now up here, where anything could happen.
He wandered down to the dock, and walked along the shore. Between the rows of boats, he saw flashes of light under the water. He stepped closer and watched slim figures undulating underwater. Thousands of salmon were stacked up against each other in the water, wriggling toward the shore. They shimmered just beneath the surface, silver, red, gray, pink, their scales lustrous in the half-light. They pushed against each other, seeking a place to lay their eggs.
Simon could have reached down and plucked a fish from the water with his bare hands. But he just watched them struggle, and after a while, he headed home and went to bed. The next day, he brought Laura her brush. And he gave her the rest of his lemongrass shampoo, which she’d told him she liked that time she’d showered at his place. He told her he thought it made her hair look shiny. He wanted her to have it. Within a few days, she was back to dropping by his apartment.
One night, over burgers at a bar, she told him she was heading to a party, and she thought it was something he’d enjoy. “The guys are from the refinery. A rowdy crowd. It’ll be something different.”
He knew he was just wasting time. Getting drunk every night. Waiting for the summer to be over, like a jail sentence. Charlie might be back. They had booked their return tickets together. It was the only thing Simon was certain of. The date he would return home.
He was hoping they could fly back together and act as if nothing had changed. A return to their old situation would be better than nothing.
But even then, it would be different. Charlie had crossed over to another kind of man, not the boy who disappeared during gym class, coming back red- eyed and slow moving. Not the same guy who had let his dark hair grow into a falling lock before his face. Not the same guy who closed his eyes and spoke about how much he loved to swim in the ocean. No, he was a man who took off with a woman he hardly knew and spent a summer on a boat in the arctic sea.
Well, Simon wasn’t the same either. He’d spent weeks slicing up fish and drinking in bars and was no longer the boy who hung back watching others take a swig or a swing at someone.
“I’m coming,” he said to Laura as she swallowed her last bite of burger.
Simon and Laura had been at the party for a couple of hours before the gun appeared. A crowd was gathered in the bedroom of the small apartment around an old TV, and they were watching the Minnesota Twins beat Detroit. Simon had no interest in the game. He hung out in the living room, where the serious drinkers gathered. Two dozen people were crowded into the small room, standing in groups.
Two refinery workers were telling Simon about the accidents at their plant – the chemical burns, the fires, the machinery that ate someone’s hand. It seemed like crazy talk, and Simon wasn’t sure whether he believed them. He guzzled beer, and smiled while they bragged about the danger.
Rex was there too. When Simon spotted him in the kitchen, manning the keg and telling dirty jokes, he’d felt like walking out. It was enough to deal with his unnerving questions during the day. He did not want to cross paths with him at night, too. But Rex had looked up at him and given him a thumbs-up, and said nothing more. A sign of a truce? Simon didn’t know.
Laura knew most of the other men from the bars, and Simon had seen a couple of them there himself. But not the guy sitting in the room’s only armchair. He was young, with a shaved head, and was dressed in a camouflage shirt. He hadn’t moved from the chair in the entire time they’d been there.
Simon watched him sip something out of a flask and then follow it with a gulp of beer from a plastic cup. Sip, gulp, sip, gulp, sip gulp, like he was training for some kind of drinking contest. He was staring into the distance and hadn’t spoken a word.
Once the man polished off the flask, he stood up. Simon could see he was muscular beneath the shirt, and he towered over most of the other men at the party. “Let’s have some fun,” he declared to no one in particular.
Simon was the only one watching. The guy reached into the backpack beside the chair and pulled something out. It was wrapped in a kitchen towel. He set the towel down on the coffee table and sat back down.
Slowly, the man unwrapped the object. It was a silver pistol, small and shiny. It rested on the kitchen towel, as if he had just finished washing it and was waiting for it to dry, as if it were nothing more than a saucepan.
“Who wants a game? A little fun? Or are you all a bunch of pussies?” he asked. He had a smoker’s voice, deep and raw. He touched the handle of the gun and turned it slowly so that the barrel moved in a circular motion.
“I said, let’s have some fun,” the man said more loudly. Jesus, this was like a scene from “The Deerhunter,” Simon thought, and someone was going to die. The room grew quiet. The towel was covered in little red roses, like one his mother would hang on the stove in their kitchen. He wondered if this man had come from some similar place, a rowhouse in Cleveland with a picture of Jesus hanging in the kitchen and a mother hovering everywhere.
“Who wants to play?” the man asked again, his clouded eyes straining to make contact. “I’ll give a hundred bucks to anyone who plays and lives.”
Simon closed his eyes, as if he could make the scene go away. Then he heard Laura’s strange, snorting laugh. It broke through the silence like its own kind of shot. Jesus, this wasn’t a good time to draw attention to yourself, but he knew she couldn’t help it.
Simon opened his eyes and turned to catch Laura’s eye. She was hanging onto a tattooed bicep. Her eyes were fixed on the gun and he wasn’t able to meet them.
“I don’t do it with girls,” the man said without looking at her. “They’re crazy, they always fucking cry. You, little guy, what’s your name?”
Simon turned back. The opaque eyes were staring at him. They seemed clouded by confusion, even by stupidity. The kind of stupidity he’d seen over and over up here.
“I’d like to play, but your gun is too small. I like a bigger pistol in my hand,” Simon heard himself say. He didn’t mean to be sarcastic. It just kicked in.
“What the fuck did you say?”
“What kind of gun is that?” Simon asked, as if he should know the name but couldn’t recall it.
“What do you know about guns, little brother?” The man turned the handle toward Simon, but he kept his hand on the barrel. Simon did not back up.
“Were you in the service?” Simon asked.
The guy stood taller, leaning back, his shoulders widening to an even greater expanse. His lips stretched into a sneer. “I got kicked out by some asshole sergeant. But I still love my country. I just hate the fucking military with their rules and bullshit.” Simon noticed the scratches on the handle of the gun, ‘fuck’ and ‘devil’ etched roughly into the metal.
“Yeah, rules,” Simon said.
“Enough chat. Are you gonna play?”
“Not me. Feeling sick.” And it was true. His stomach was starting to churn and he thought he might vomit.
“You don’t look sick, man, just weak.”
“Too much booze.” Why hadn’t he stopped drinking after two or three, like he usually did? Then his head would be clear, and he could think.
“That won’t keep you from pulling a trigger.” The guy leaned back over the table, almost into a crouch, and pushed the gun toward Simon.
“Put that fucking thing away, Alan. No one wants to play.” Rex was speaking from the doorway of the kitchen. He had his arms folded across his chest, the way he did on the factory floor when he was looking for someone to criticize.
Simon glanced around. Laura was clinging more tightly to that tattooed arm. No one else seemed ready to help him.
Alan. The name registered. The asshole with the gun was named Alan? How could that be, Simon wondered, and suddenly he felt like laughing himself. Alan was a name for an accountant or a teacher, not a psycho with a gun. He wanted to let out a big snorting laugh, like Laura had. A big fuck-you of a laugh that was loud and rude.
“Put that gun away or get the hell out of here,” Rex said again. His voice was casual, like he was telling someone to put their apron away at the plant.
“Who is fucking gonna make me? Who here knows what it is like to fight for this great country? Only you, little brother, can make me. You gonna do it, little brother?” The eyes seemed focused on Simon now. There was no more cloud.
Simon knew what he should say. Put it away, man. Not today, brother. No one wants to play. But something about the words little brother brought a fury into his head. It was like a cloud took over, a buzzing that grew louder and wouldn’t go away. It was as if the cloud said things Simon had had thought for a long time but never said. Fuck them and their brotherhood, fuck the military men and their weapons, fuck the refinery workers and their stories of missing hands, and the headers and their big knives chopping everything to bits. Fuck the friends who run off with a bleached blonde, and leave you stranded amid violence and uncertainty. They could all get blown away.
“I’m not your brother,” Simon heard himself say. And he stepped forward and put his hand on the grip of the gun. The metal was cold and indifferent in his hand. Simon’s fingers grasped the handle, and he tried to twist the gun away from its owner, but the man’s grip wouldn’t give. He felt the metal turn powerfully, bending his wrist, and a sharp pain ran up his forearm. Before Simon knew it, Rex jumped on the soldier, and another man came from behind, knocking them all to the ground. The gun flew out of their hands and up into the air and Simon didn’t look to see where it fell.
He jumped up and stood back and watched the fight. Three or four men were on the soldier now, wrestling on the floor. Everyone scrambled toward the gun, as Simon edged toward the door and rushed out.
He ran down the long, narrow hallway toward the stairs, his heart jumping in his chest, as if he had already run a dozen miles. He’d gotten out, he was still alive. He could keep running as far as he had to.
He pushed open the door to the apartment building and kept running. Once he got outside, he stared down at his palm to see if there was a mark where he had touched the weapon. But there was nothing.
He didn’t need to have the gun go off in his hand to feel its power. The moment the metal was against his skin something had changed. He could feel all of the times the weapon had been fired, he could sense all of the damage it wrought.
Simon remembered from long ago, finding his father’s hunting rifle stored in the closet of his mother’s room. It was scary and thrilling to crawl through the hanging clothes and touch that long metal barrel in the back of the closet. He wasn’t supposed to know the gun was there, waiting for his father to come back. His father had hunted when Simon was little. He’d left them with a freezer full of venison when he’d walked out.
Simon heard Laura’s laugh boom out from the window above. The strange, earthy sound was filling his ears when the gun went off. One shot, followed quickly by a second and third.
Simon turned back to the apartment building, and he heard screams growing louder. He saw a silhouette in the window. Was it Laura, looking for him?
Suddenly, they were all running out the front door of the building, dozens of people, Laura, the tattooed man, Rex, and others. Laura climbed into the cab of a pickup truck with the tattooed man, and a half dozen men jumped into the back. Simon heard sirens approaching, and he turned and walked away.
He circled around behind a house and waited there as he heard the police cars approach. When they passed, he headed back down to the empty docks, and walked along the shoreline.
The salmon were there, squirming against each other beneath the surface. A few were dead and floating belly up along the edge of the water. But many more were still struggling to spawn, their bodies undulating under the surface.
Simon wondered who was still up in the apartment, who was the one who had been shot? And he wondered, what if it had been him? What if no one had jumped the soldier, what if he had wrestled alone over that gun until he’d lost?
Charlie would only have heard about it later, maybe much later. No one could even get word to him, out on that boat. His mother’s letters and Charlie’s postcard were the only things here to connect him to the rest of the world.
He heard another siren now, growing louder. An ambulance, maybe. Maybe the person who’d been shot in the apartment was still alive. He could only hope.
Simon sat on the edge of the dock and stared into the water. The siren went silent after a minute. The night became so quiet, punctuated by the occasional splash of a jumping fish.
He breathed deeply and watched the school of salmon. He took off his sneakers and rolled up his jeans to his knees. He let his feet dangle above the water, his toes nearly touching the backs of the fish.
He slipped off the dock and stepped into the icy water. The fish slipped between his legs and their pointed faces bumped against his feet. Their slippery skin rubbed against his own.
He walked forward, until the water reached his knees. The fish surrounded him, and he reached down. He let his fingers dangle there under the surface of the water and skimmed their backs. The salmon swam on, flowing under and around him. Their powerful tails slapped against him. They felt different swimming here, very different than the stiff bodies he spent days slicing open. They shook with life, and he felt alive too.
He had nearly missed this chance, he realized. The season for spawning was so short. But he was with them, now, among them, one of the many who were swimming and breathing and living, and there would be no going back.
As a child, Sarah Golin enjoyed observing and writing about the natural world. She grew up in Western Pennsylvania, and spent much of her time out-of-doors camping, hiking and sailing. For more than two decades, she has worked as an editor and writer. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including Blackbird Journal, Outdoor Life, The Chicago Tribune, The Star-Ledger, Brown Alumni Monthly, Inside Jersey and others. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from N.Y.U. and a bachelor’s degree in history from Brown University. Recently, she went back to school and earned an M.F.A. in creative writing from Manhattanville College. She as at work on her first novel.