"All five of the world's loon species may be found in Alaska. The bird's distinctive yodel evokes insane laughter for some, implacable mourning for others. As much as any other sound, the cry of the loon is identified with the call of the wild."
- The Pemberton Guide to Alaska's Birds
Midafternoon on a Tuesday, it occurred to Bean Jessup that she was forgetting her husband's face.
She was working the slime line, one of a dozen people at the trough, facing a spout that spewed cold water onto a chopping block. On a conveyor before her, slippery, metallic hunks of salmon rolled past, their heads and tails removed, bloody wads of pinks and chums en
route to the canning machine. Her job was simple enough: pull a fish from the belt, slash away the bits of fin and innards missed by the gutting machine, rinse it, and return it to the belt. Repeat. She wore a yellow rain suit against the splashing water; with pimpled rubber gloves, she gripped a dagger-sized knife.
Every few hours, Fat Al, the supervisor of the Northern Pacific Fish Co., strolled by to inspect the carnage. He had a squirrel's nest of a beard, Amish-style, and suspenders stretched drum-tight over a flanneled belly. His big slick pate reminded Bean of a chubby baby, but otherwise he was scary. His run-together eyebrows made him look permanently cross, and his left hand had only three fingers and a thumb. Bean had to remind herself not to stare at his hand.
The factory's screeches and clatter made threats useless, so Fat Al tried to boost productivity with surprise appearances and a few hard looks. Time was everything. Fish rotted.
It was early in the salmon run, two days after the Fourth of July, and everybody was pulling double shifts. Wrapped in rubber, Bean felt her T-shirt cling like yesterday's washcloth. The smell hung on her, too. But "smell" was too kind. It was the "stench" of blood and
salt and fish heads, and not the fresh ones. By the end of the season she would have to throw away her shirts and jeans and probably her socks and underwear, too. She used skunk remedies on her hair.
The endless workdays threw everyone's clock off-kilter. You worked the line for seventeen hours and had the remainder to eat, clean, love, drink, laugh, and consider your life. It didn't help that the sun never set. After a while, you just believed whatever the clock
in the break room said, though more than once Bean caught herself wondering whether it was morning or night. She stumbled home in the midnight dusk and was back by 7 A.M., trudging up the cannery's plank stairs in knee-high boots. All day, she and her coworkers
toiled in unblinking fluorescence, wired on cookies and coffee, which Fat Al shrewdly furnished for free.
When she first worked the cannery a few years back, Bean had been appalled by how much slime got past her sleep-starved colleagues--prickly fins, chunks of gill, speckled bits of skin--and rolled right into the canning machine. Her instinct was to lunge after an errant piece of gristle, hoping to spare some Safeway shopper a rude surprise. But her reward would be to get water in her gloves. Or a dirty look from the guy who had already slimed the fish. After a week or so, she just let it roll by: the sinews and cartilage and entrails clinging to the precious salmon flesh. All that ever came out the other side were perfect cans with tidy green
labels. It was someone else's problem.
With her hands leased out to Northern Pacific, Bean had lots of time to ponder. She wasn't a heavy thinker or a particularly organized one. Much of the time, thoughts fluttered through her head like clothes in the dryer. She suspected that most people thought that way--in loopy circles--even bosses like Fat Al. Sometimes she thought about her second-graders; she imagined them visiting her when she was old. Sometimes she dreamed up a new diet for herself; she would live on chicken and carrots, or drink so much water that nothing else would fit in her stomach.
Frequently she wondered what in the world she was doing in Eyak--so far from home--where it always rained and there were bears and there was no road in or out.
She forced herself to think ahead; no sense looking back now. But after lunch on Tuesday Bean had one persistent thought. It tumbled through her mind, pushed her eyes from side to side, and made her feel whimpery.
"I don't remember what he looks like."
She glanced across the trough at Lois. Lois's face was tucked into a red bandanna; she hated getting splattered. Lois was tall, had eyes that said either "don't mess with me" or "fuck me," depending. She looked like an outlaw, which was pretty much how Bean saw her. Lois
spoke her mind and drank whiskey and had blond highlights in her frizzy hair, even in winter. Bean felt lucky to have her as a friend.
Lois was sexy, too. Even now. Bean watched her work on a sockeye, slicing away at the gills, gore running up her forearms. She wore the same shapeless rain suit that Bean did, except Lois's was somehow cinched smartly at the waist. Her hips swayed slightly back and forth to whatever music was pumping from the Walkman into her ears. Her ears. Bright red fire hydrants dangled from each lobe. Only Lois would wear jewelry on the slime line. At twenty-eight, Lois was two years older than Bean, but next to her, Bean felt like a crone. Which was odd, because she had better breasts than Lois, and she didn't have all those moles. But Lois's face and body had an unimaginable asset: they had Lois as a press agent.
Lois looked up from her fish. She must have noticed Bean's idle hands. She gave Bean a slight nod and a good hard look, which was entirely illegible because of the bandanna covering her face. Bean shrugged and looked away. Lois couldn't help her with this.
Bean stared into the trough, at the blood swirling down the drain. It was horrible, yet oddly pretty, bright and thick, like finger paint. Her feet ached and she shifted her weight in her boots. Horrible pretty. As she rocked back, she bumped into a towering hulk behind her. It moved. She screamed and spun around, the knife in her fist poking at the intruder.
For a big man, Fat Al could jump. He hopped backward, clamped a meaty hand on Bean's wrist, and twisted the knife toward the ceiling. They stood there for a moment, looking at each other--Fat Al, a foot taller than Bean, clutching her upheld glove--like a pair of miserable dancers. She felt his breath full force on her face. Chewing tobacco. It was hard to believe a man could smell worse than a fish cannery.
"Jeez Christ," he said.
Bean's heart was still pounding. "Sorry," she whispered. She didn't want to look into his menacing face, and she especially didn't want to look at his abbreviated hand, so she dropped her chin like a bad dog. "Sorry."
Her apology didn't register. They were both wearing earplugs. It was like a conversation with her mother.
Lois was taking in the scene from across the trough, her eyes like Ping-Pong balls. Fat Al extracted the jagged knife from Bean's hand and placed it on the chopping block. For a moment, she thought he might smack her. But he just put his bush-beard next to her ear and
shouted, "Fish ain't goin' to clean itself," then walked off.
Lois thought the whole thing was pretty funny. In the break room an hour later, she tossed lemon pretzel cookies into her mouth and shook her head. "I tried to warn you, honey," she said. "I really did. I can't believe you didn't feel him behind you. I mean, any closer and he'd have to buy you dinner."
Bean nibbled a cookie. "I'm distracted," she said. "You know that."
"You should've seen his face. His eyes popped out. He thought you were going to slime him, I swear to God."
"Maybe that's how he lost his finger, sneaking up on people," Bean said.
Back on the line that evening, Bean realized she could remember some things about Mick. Enough, for instance, to satisfy a police artist. His hair was brown and thick and he almost never combed it. He let Bean cut it now and then, and she shaved his thin white neck, taking
care not to nick him. His eyes were brown, too. Gentle. He rubbed them when he was tired after he'd been out fishing. His body ran hot, even in winter. He sweated half-moons into his T-shirts before the morning was done.
Was that "it," then? Bean wondered. Had she remembered him? Had she caught him before he slipped away? Everyone else seemed to think he was dead. There had been a service. But he had been missing for only a month. Some kids went to summer camp for that long.
How had his breath felt on her neck? Bean wasn't sure.
She reached for a fish and noticed the guy beside her, a college student with a ball cap that said OREGON STATE. He was talking to himself again. Just staring straight at nothing and chatting away. Maybe he was in some sort of religious trance. She wondered if she
could piggyback on his prayer, so it would count for her and Mick. It would be like when an operator busts into a phone call for you in an emergency.
It occurred to Bean that she might launch a prayer on her own. But she couldn't remember the words. She knew one that started "Hail Mary, full of grace." And it ended with "Now and at the hour of our death." But she was damned if she could remember what came in between. It was a prayer with the middle cut out, and the middle was what mattered. Like with this fish.
She spotted a slip of paper dangling from the water pipe in front of the college kid's nose. It was affixed with a blotch of salmon gut. He was reading something--memorizing it. By the shape of the words on the page, it was a poem. Bean wondered what it was about. She
knew some poems. Well, rhymes really, stuff she'd learned as a little girl. Winnie-the-Pooh, Mother Goose. Her brother had read them to her, over and over. She remembered sitting beside him in the easy chair, cozily mashed together, shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip, as he turned the big pages in the book on their laps, she, safe and sleepy, sometimes dropping her eyes to stare at the blond down on his forearms. But she could never drift too far, because if he
thought she was asleep, he would try to end the story in the middle.
"And they lived happily ever after," Chip would say, slamming the book shut.
"No," Bean would squeal, delighted that she had caught him in this trick. "No happy after." She would stab an imperious finger at the unread pages beneath his arm and command: "Read."
Bean hoped to read to her own child someday. She imagined only one: a curly-haired girl in sagging pants who played amid the daisies. You just had to smile to look at that little girl. Bean would bring her to her own best friend's house--a friend who baked her own bread, wore loose skirts, and finished Bean's sentences. On a lazy afternoon they would sit together on the porch, sip lemonade, and watch their children play.
So far, all she had was the porch. It was really just a deck that Mick built off the back door. Lois couldn't make bread and she said baby-making would ruin her hips. As for the curly-haired girl, Bean had stayed on the pill. Mick had wanted children, though. "Critters," he called them. As in: "I wouldn't mind a few of those critters runnin' around on a Saturday morning." But she hadn't been ready. Too many things could go wrong. And now--now it i0might be too late.
As she yanked on a string of gut, Bean pictured the various snapshots of Mick scattered around their house. Sleepy Mick in a thick brown robe cradling Fred as a pup. Skinny Mick in yellow trunks tugging a sailboat into the water in Cancun. Mick and Bean on the mountain, with surprised looks because the camera's self-timer had worked. She loved that picture. It was on the nightstand. Mick's soft eyes; her own pretty face, dark blond hair, her body luckily
cut out of the frame so she didn't have to worry if she looked fat.
But she couldn't conjure Mick himself, make him stand before her, see him in the round as she had every day--jokey and excited, or bone-tired, or just there, with mussed hair and breakfast cereal. She couldn't recall the secrets of the lean body she'd hugged at night. What freckle where? Fingernails, flat or rounded? Second toe longer than the first? Bean wasn't sure. She recalled a scar across his eyelid where he'd hit a glass table as a little boy, and it made
her feel a little better. But which eye?
The college boy recited his poem.
It felt terribly wrong. Mick knew her secrets; the least she could do was remember his topography. It had taken months of hurt feelings, stuttered starts and misfights over chores and money before Bean had managed to unfold herself to Mick.
"When I was one, I had just begun."
He figured out her moods. He knew when to cajole. And he knew when to stand aside and wait for Bean to emerge, heavy-headed, from her lair of twisted sheets, children's books, and Ho Ho wrappers. Mick knew all this, but now he was gone.
And if she let him go, it would be as if the best thing that had ever happened to her--the "only" good thing, it seemed--had never been.
Copyright (c) 2003 by Christopher Marquis