A journal of narrative writing.
Fishes and Wine
Page 2

To their left some water was flowing down a gully that slanted down the face of the bluff to the beach. They danced their way up this gully to the top and then jogged across the tundra looking for the dirt road that Tyler and Ratface said was nearby, jumping from tussock to tussock to avoid the water in the low places. It was still early in the year, May, and the grass was not very green yet, just a flat expanse of dull grasses and mosses and low berry plants stretching for miles.

Once they had found the dirt road, they slowed again to a walk. In the distance Jimmy saw a radio tower poking up from the flatness.

"I was working in a pea cannery down in Walla Walla," Lucky Tyler reflected. "There's a little college down there with a heated duck pond, can you believe it? I used to ride by on my bicycle."

Jimmy had rolled his sleeve back from his wrist and was trying to reattach the clip on his loose bandage. "How do you know it was heated?"

"I'm telling you, it was heated," Lucky Tyler said. "To keep the ice off it. So the college kids could have ducks to watch."

"College kids," Ratface said. "That explains it."

"Man, was I sick of peas," Tyler said. "We'd go out behind the cannery and pee in the pea field just to do it. Someone's peas might have my pee in it, ha!"

"I worked on a surimi ship where we did the same thing," Ratface said. "Just peed right there in the fish."

"I'll never eat another green pea as long as I live," Tyler said. "I couldn't even eat dinner tonight."

"You don't like stew?" Jimmy said.

"I love beef stew, but not if there's peas in it."

"Get yourself something in town," Ratface said.

"Yeah, maybe I'll get a cheeseburger," Tyler said.

"Should be enough time for it and still make it back before midnight," Jimmy said.

It was late twilight, nine o'clock or so. Pink and violet undershimmers swam in the evening sky and reminded Jimmy, not happily, of a school of herring. The road to town was rutted from whatever few trucks had driven here and back; there really was nowhere to drive but on the dirt roads that petered out across the tundra. To their right the treeless sweep was interrupted by a silvery little pond.

"How much'd you bet him you'd be back before midnight?" Ratface asked.

"Thirty-five bucks," Tyler said.

"That's why he only gave you six," Jimmy said. "He knew he'd lose the bet."

Tyler nodded sourly. "Maybe I'll spend his six on my cheeseburger and not give him any beer."

"Oh, I don't know," Jimmy said.

"Don't know what?" Tyler said.

"If that'd be fair."

Tyler ignored that and lit a cigarette. "Maybe I'm a little out of shape," he said, "but he's dead wrong if he thinks I'm a soft gut." He blew his cigarette smoke at Ratface.

"Cut it out," Ratface said.

Lucky Tyler elbowed Jimmy. "I didn't think people even got tuberculosis anymore, did you, Jimmy?"

"I don't have tuberculosis," Ratface said. "That was ten years ago."

"When I got out of jump school I had a twenty-eight waist," Tyler said. "Asshole tells me I got a soft gut."

Jimmy unwound the flapping bandage from his wrist and stuffed it in his pocket.

"I'm short one toe and got rebar in my leg and my hearing's fucked up and some old queen tells me I got a soft gut?" Tyler had quickened his pace and Jimmy and Ratface hopped to keep up with him.

"It just don't matter what he told you," Ratface said.

Tyler grunted and glanced at Jimmy. "You hear me, Tucson?"

"I don't think you're fat," Jimmy said.

Tyler grabbed a roll of flesh at his side and with his fist began beating himself in the belly. While he walked he kept slugging himself as if he were beating a drum. "I'm Airborne," he yelled, "I'm an Airborne motherfucker and don't anybody forget it!"

"Why don't we get a drink before starting back?" Ratface said. "We'll stop in at Fisher's."

"Maybe so," Tyler said hotly.

"Fisher's a bar?" Jimmy asked.

"That's right," Tyler said. And to Ratface, "Help me figure this out. If we get four cases of beer, that's eighty-eight bucks. Plus a bottle of tequila would throw us over a hundred. You remember how much Nat gave me?"


"There probably won't be time to stop in any bar," Jimmy said.

"But I know Bandy gave you his whole draw," Ratface said.

"Then he gets his fair share," Tyler said. "Fair is fair. But if a guy gives me six bucks - I'll tell you one thing, the only bottle I spring for that old lard-ass forklift operator is the one he splits his lip on."

"There might not be time to get a cheeseburger if we start going in the bars," Jimmy said.

Lucky Tyler looked at him. "Listen, Tucson, the only way we can fill this duffel bag is if we go in a bar. The liquor store is part of the bar. They sell from stock in the back room. That's how it is in this town."

"He's right," Ratface said.

"You don't have to drink a drop," Tyler said. "Course they won't cash your check for you unless you buy a drink with it."

"Nobody's cashing any checks," Jimmy said.

"I'm just telling you how it works," Tyler said.

"That's how it works, is it?" Jimmy slowed his pace but the others pulled him along. "The whole economy's just fishes and wine. You make your money and give it right back to them. Of course they're happy to cash your check as long as they get a piece of it."

"No," Tyler said, "the only reason we'll need to cash a check is if that bottle of tequila throws us over a hundred."

"It's one bar or another," Ratface said.

Jimmy gazed ahead at the dusky faceless buildings of the town. He saw nobody on the outskirts. "What's the choice?"

"Well, there's one bar not even worthy mentioning," Lucky Tyler said. "And the Red Dog has some chairs and tables in it. That's a nice place for a college kid to sit. And then there's Fisher's."

"Fisher's," Jimmy said. "We'll go there."

Ratface let out a strange yip when he heard they were going to Fisher's.

Lucky Tyler said, "Now listen, Jimmy, don't tick anyone off in there, all right?"

Naknek is built on the bank of a river, and coming into town they saw the water edging silently by, broad and smooth and faintly aglow. Warehouses and canneries fronted the river and yardlights shone down from the high roof corners. Seagulls stood below in the circles of light.

They passed a grocery store and a hardware store, both shut for the night. Ratface and Lucky Tyler crossed the road to a sunken wooden building with a light burning on the porch. Jimmy heard men's voices inside. A white mutt got up on the porch and wagged its tail at them. Ratface and Lucky Tyler tramped noisily up the porch steps and Jimmy followed more grimly. The old-fashioned saloon doors swung inward when they entered and swung shut behind them.

Heads turned and Jimmy swiped the cap off his head. The bar ran around three sides of the room and men stood along the length of it. Pool balls clacked in the heart of the room where men shot pool under low-hanging lamps. It was crowded inside with just enough elbow room but no empty stools to be had. The place was smoky and full of talk. Jimmy kept his eyes moving or he met with unfriendly stares. They were wiry men, their faces creased and bearded and stained.

Lucky Tyler and Ratface gravitated toward the white-aproned bartender, and Jimmy went after them. "We buy the stuff and go," he whispered.

Tyler nodded, but distractedly, bargazing at all the colored bottles and pretty glasses. With his thumb and forefinger he kept smoothing down the sides of his mustache. He raised his hand to catch the bartender's attention.

The only woman in the joint was high up in the corner on a video screen, a young blonde wriggling around on a tropical beach. Jimmy watched her doing what she was doing for a minute until he realized nobody else was watching. When the bartender approached, Jimmy turned his back and tried to concentrate on the game of pool. "You know how to play snooker?" Ratface asked him.

"No." Jimmy felt warm and undid a shirt button.

Lucky Tyler finally rejoined them and said he had placed the order.

"Good. Ten o'clock," Jimmy said. "We'll make it."

"Where's the booze?" Ratface asked.

"Bartender's packing the duffel bag." Lucky Tyler watched the game with them a minute, and he cautiously cleared his throat and hiked up his jeans. "Can I see my check, Jimmy?"

Jimmy stared at the green of the pool table. "What for?"

"I just wanna see it."

"We brought enough cash to cover things."

Lucky Tyler wiped his hands on his hips. "Well maybe I want something for myself."

Jimmy looked at him and looked away again.

"Tucson, man, I already ordered us a round. Ten bucks is all."

Jimmy turned and saw the bartender setting down three Budweisers: brown bottles, bright red and blue on the labels. Some stools had come available and the bartender murmured Sit down, boys and Tyler went ahead and sat down. Jimmy turned to Ratface but Ratface only shook his head and said, "Hey, I'm a drinking man too, but if a guy is dumb enough to blow his paycheck on booze, I'm not gonna stop him."

Jimmy took the third stool. A thin, unshaven man slouched next to him, head propped on his hand and grinning bleary-eyed at Jimmy. The man's lips were shut and moving in a circle as if he were chewing tobacco. Goddamn, he stank. Like the bottom of a herring hold he stank. Jimmy turned away but the stranger clamped a hand on his shoulder and hissed something in his ear. Jimmy shoved the hand away and sat rigid, his heart bucking. He didn't know what the man had said and he didn't ask.

Lucky Tyler demanded his paycheck again and this time Jimmy gave it to him. Tyler unfolded it, and there was just that piece of paper he had sweated for, pale and fragile in his palm.

A hush had come over the room. The men around the bar had stopped talking and they all seemed to glance at Lucky Tyler as if they had a stake in his paycheck, as if they had seen this little drama many times before. Their keen, sad faces made Jimmy shiver.

Jimmy looked up again at the girl on the screen, but nobody in the bar gave a damn about her and neither at the moment did Jimmy. In Lucky Tyler he was looking down through the insides of a man to a region where all duties and scruples blow along like dry leaves before a fire. There is no answer for that - none Jimmy could give, and none he wanted to give, as he found even a kid named Jimmy Biggs could be so indifferent from the height of a barstool.

Lucky Tyler handed his paycheck to the bartender and received cash in return, and Jimmy heard what sounded like a long sigh go up through the room, followed by a riffle of long swallows and a soft knocking of glasses one by one upon the bar.