A journal of narrative writing.
Fishes and Wine

Jimmy Biggs had journeyed to Alaska all the way from Tucson hoping to make enough money to pay for college one day. Whenever an older hand like Ratface, tramping the beach beside him, asked Jimmy how he liked cannery work, Jimmy answered that he didn't mind it for now but he wanted to do something better with his life. He was nineteen.

Ahead of them, Lucky Tyler marched over the wet sand with a strut, swinging his arms as if to keep time with some inner passion. When he stopped to wait for them, he hooked his thumbs in his beltloops and hiked up his jeans and shouted "Let's go, turkeys!" Tyler was a squat man with a large head and a thick nose that doglegged from an old break. A Pancho Villa mustache swooped down the sides of his mouth.

"What's his hurry?" Ratface grumbled.

"You didn't hear about the bet?" Jimmy said.

A party had started up in the bunkhouse shortly after dinner, and as soon as it was obvious that there wouldn't be enough booze to keep everybody happy, these three had agreed to make the run into Naknek, the only town in walking distance on this remote shore of Bristol Bay. The cannery's two forklift drivers - Lucky Tyler was one of them - always vied for popularity among the lesser line workers, and when the second forklift driver heard that Lucky Tyler was going to town, he laughed scornfully and gave odds that Tyler wouldn't make it back to the cannery before midnight.

"Hell if I care about his bet," Ratface said. "I'm on my own time."

"That goes double for me," Jimmy said, glad to have nobody to answer to for a change. It was late in May, the herring run had ended, and for the first time in weeks he had an evening off.

The end of a bandage dangled from under Jimmy's blue flannel cuff, and as he walked he tried stuffing the bandage back around his wrist. His wrist ached from tendonitis contracted from handling too many herring too diligently - scooping the fish off conveyor belts, packing them into waxed boxes for export - and whenever his wrist ached especially much he told himself, This is all part of doing something with your life, Jimmy boy; eight-hour days'll be a cinch after this.

The three men walked abreast, picking their way among the slick dark rocks. Muddy bluffs rose to their left, buttressing the tundra, and to their right a shining mudflat sloped a hundred or more yards to the water. The tide was out, and far out there you could see the fish tenders lying at anchor. A few lights glimmered on the boats but it was early yet, not half past eight, barely twilight in this part of Alaska.

"What's your hurry," Ratface demanded.

Lucky Tyler had gotten ahead again. "I'm thirsty, that's what."

"No, it's that other forklift driver," Ratface said.

"That old motherfucker said I can't hike three miles twice and bring back a rack of beer without falling on my ass."

Jimmy drew closer. "He only said that to get you to go out and buy the beer."

"Damn right," Tyler said.

Ratface was doubled over in one of his coughing fits, scarlet-faced, his mouth wide open.

"Quit coughing on us," Tyler said.

"Can't you cover your mouth?" Jimmy said.

"Goddammit I told you it ain't contagious," Ratface cried, and lashed his empty duffel bag, the one they had brought to carry the booze in, against a rock.

Ratface was a slight and beady-eyed man who had been drifting on the seafood circuit for years. He always ate his meals alone and as soon as he was done eating he would get up and leave the mess hall. Many years ago Ratface had gone to Cuba to pick sugar cane for Fidel Castro and nobody knew what to make of him when he told them this. He was often seen talking to himself.

"You should've seen it when that old motherfucker dropped his pallet," Lucky Tyler was still stewing about his nemesis back at the bunkhouse. "Drove his forklift smack into the freezer door and dropped two thousand pounds of fish. Cary Sue saw it."

"Cary Sue," Ratface muttered balefully.

"Crashed his forklift and he's got the nerve to tell me he's a better driver."

"He said he's better than you?" Jimmy said.

"Calls me a forklift driver," Tyler said. "He's a forklift operator but I'm a forklift driver."

"That's just words," Jimmy said.

"You like Cary Sue?" Ratface asked.

"Sure, I like her," Jimmy said.

"You don't care if she's a dyke?"

"No, I don't care," Jimmy said.

"Well," Ratface said after a moment, "neither do I. But I wish she was more up front with us about it."

"Maybe she didn't think we'd follow her orders if she told us on the first day she's a dyke," Jimmy said.

"It spoils everything when the foreman's not up front with you," Ratface said.

"Hell, I like her," Tyler said. "It's a shame, though."

"What about?" Ratface said.

"It's a shame when a woman's getting more pussy than I do, but she's a damn good foreman," Lucky Tyler explained.

The others laughed. Lucky Tyler lit a cigarette. He was called Lucky Tyler because a bomb burst his foxhole in Vietnam many years ago and he was the only man of three to come up out of it. He wore a brown corduroy jacket over his t-shirt, the dirty white t-shirt bulging over his belly.

A cold wind was whisking around them and Jimmy buttoned the top buttons of his flannel. They still had a half mile to go up the beach and another mile inland into town. They walked briskly, sometimes tossing stones along the shore or pivoting and hurling them at the black face of the bluff. Up there on the bluff a line of old cabins straggled, abandoned until June when the setnetters would return to fish for salmon.

"That old motherfucker only gave me six bucks for drinks," Tyler said.

"Quit thinking about him," Jimmy said.

"I can't help it. How much cash'd you guys draw from your checks?"

"I took fifteen," Jimmy said.

"Twenty," Ratface said.

"Now why do you suppose that old bastard motherfucker only gave me six bucks?"

"Maybe that's all the money he had," Jimmy said.

Lucky Tyler threw down his cigarette and hitched up his jeans the way he always did before mounting his forklift. "Let me see my paycheck, Jimmy."

"I don't have it."

"You don't have it?"

"I left it under the bunk."

"You did not."

"The idea was you weren't gonna cash your check," Jimmy said. "What's it matter if I don't have it if you're not gonna cash it?"

"I'm not gonna cash it, I just wanna see it." Lucky Tyler stopped walking and frowned at him, and Jimmy pulled uneasily at the bandage trailing from his wrist. He withdrew some checks from his back pocket and handed one to Tyler.

"Hah, you see!"

"The kid was doing you a favor," Ratface said.

"Then why's he tell me he hasn't got my check when he's got it right there in his back pocket?"

"I don't care," Jimmy walked ahead, "I really don't care about your check."

"Hey, I'm sorry," Tyler called after him.

When they caught up to Jimmy, Lucky Tyler asked him again to guard his paycheck.

"No way. It's your check, you do what you want with it. Just don't ask me to cash mine."

"I won't."

"I'm not touching mine till I put it in the bank."


"All right then." Jimmy plucked the check from Tyler's hand and slipped it in his back pocket. Then they turned and watched Ratface, who had gone over by a driftwood log and was bent over hawking, shooting phlegm from his mouth.

"That sounds bad," Tyler said.

"You all right?" Jimmy said.

Ratface nodded and they walked on.

"How can you be sure it's not contagious?" Tyler said.

"Because it's cured," Ratface said wiping his mouth.

"I didn't know they could cure TB."

"Well now you know," Ratface said. "Almost had my lung cut out."

Lucky Tyler threw his hands up and said to Jimmy, "You see why a guy wants a drink now and then?"

"I know why a guy wants a drink," Jimmy said, "but I don't know why anyone would work for three weeks and blow his paycheck in three hours."

"No one's blowing any check," Tyler said. "I just hope a hundred cash'll cover what we need."

"It should be plenty," Jimmy said.

"That old motherfucker only gave me six bucks," Tyler said. "I know what things cost. It's seven bucks for a sixpack of Rainier."

"That's the cheapest they got?" Jimmy said.

"Cheapest brand. Twenty-two dollars a case. Hell, I don't wanna drink with that old fart anyway."

"I'd like to pour some Calvert down Cary Sue's throat and see what happens to her," Ratface said.

"Like what might happen to her?" Jimmy said.

"I don't know. But it ruins everything when the foreman's not up front with you."