HOW YOU RIDE IT
(Chp. 16 of Gone Alaska)
by Dave Barrett
That evening, towards eight o’ clock, Swanson slipped out back and announced a change of plans.
“Haul in the gear!”
He’d startled me and I tried to cover this up by sitting down on the wood siding as a large roller tipped the cockpit. All day I’d been waiting for him to try something.
“Sure,” I said, setting the brake so I could face him. “What about the cooler on deck?”
The fishing had dropped off shortly after our incident at noon. The flood of salmon we’d run into earlier might have been the tail-end of this three-day Fraser River run. But now that the tide was changing—and activating a feed by stirring the ocean bottom—there was a chance we could still fill the cooler with a dozen or more local Kings and Cohoes.
“Naw. . .” Swanson said, grabbing the haystack as we see-sawed over a second roller. “We’ll supper tonight on a little beach I know a few miles south of here. Cook in the sand. Get out of these damn winds.”
Nodding, I pushed back the hair from my eyes. A big williwaw had whipped up a few hours ago. The sun was lowering behind Swanson: putting him in a strange silhouetted light. I thought how unlike him it was to not take every fish we could get.
“What about the catch?” I asked, turning my face away for a second as a ray of red sunlight flashed in my eyes. “Aren’t we supposed to deliver it at HARRY’S tonight?”
“The catch?” Swanson repeated, as though the thought had just occurred to him. “Well. . .” He leaned into the hayrack as a third roller tipped the deck. “We’ll put it off till the morning. That way we’ll avoid the lines and get a fire going before dark.”
From the wheelhouse came a loud squelch: someone trying to get through on the wire. Asking if this beach supper things was all right with me, Swanson took my noncommittal shrug of the shoulders as an O.K. Without another word—without any acknowledgment of the murderous scuffle that had occurred between us at noon—he returned to the wheelhouse; the hitch of his high shoulder more marked than usual because of the rolling seas.
I opted to remain out back as we approached the narrow gorge leading to the tiny bay we were to anchor in tonight. In spite of Swanson’s apparent willingness to let bygones be bygones . . . I detected an underlying iciness to his manner that indicated the matter was all but forgotten. It was lurking just beneath the guise of his calm surface, waiting until just the right moment to lash out for the jugular.
Having just finished packing the last of the day’s catch below deck, I sat on the cooler with my fists between my legs, shivering. I wondered why, with all these easier bays and inlets to get in and out of, Swanson had chosen this one to camp at tonight. Another reason for delaying our delivery at HARRY’S was because of our vessels size we could only get in and out of this bay during high tide. High tide having occurred at 8:14, we were cutting it close as it was.
I stood as we entered the first corridor of this serpentine gorge. The sky was already a deep turquoise. Granite cliffs rose ninety feet out of the water either side of the trawler at perfect ninety-degree angles. The waters were as narrow as fifty yards across in places. And iceberg-like rocks littered the path ahead of us: jutting thirty to forty feet out of the water as we drifted by.
When we were about a quarter mile into the gorge, Swanson poked his head out the wheelhouse door and, pointing towards the gray cliffs on our right, said:
“Petroglyphs . . .”
There were about a dozen in all: strewn across the broad-faced granite walls like inner city graffiti. They were rough hewn one dimensional figures of men and women and whales and fish and animals. I was taken by one figure hewn in stone somewhat separate from the rest—about thirty yards deeper into the gorge. It was directly beneath a dwarf spruce tree growing perpendicularly out of a crevice in the cliff wall. In straight blunt lines it depicted a man with one hand over his heart and the other over his stomach. It was the simplest and least creative of the carvings: except for the strong feelings of horror and despair it evoked out of me. There was something about the man’s face that made me think he was very young and very old at the same time: a sage and a fool all at once. His eyes were wide and staring—and while his hand covered his heart—his mouth was slightly parted and drawn down in a frown not unlike a salmon’s.
Entering another corridor of this gorge . . . I began to pace deck. We were passing more of these iceberg-like rocks every two-hundred feet or so now. The limbs of the dwarf spruces growing in the crevices stretched their mangled arms out over the glossy green waters as though to reach out and touch us. Barnacles and mussels, attached to the cliffs at water level by the tens of thousands, seemed to watch us as we slid by. Forcing myself to stare directly ahead (to belay the claustrophobic feeling I had that these granite walls were actually closing in on us), I began to wonder if we’d ever make it to this fabled beach of Swanson’s before wrecking the boat. I expected to feel our bulwarks come crunching in at any moment. What if Swanson had entered the wrong passage? What if this gorge suddenly came to an end? Or it became so narrow we couldn’t proceed further? There was no way in hell we’d be able to turn the trawler around: we’d be like the proverbial ship stuck in a bottle! Finally, rounding one more dizzying bend of the gorge, the black green waters beneath us widened and we moved out onto the main body of this hidden bay.
After dropping anchor, I was told to bring the skiff from the roof of the wheelhouse. Untying the orange plastic skiff, I slid it down on my back and flip-flopped it right side up on the water with a loud smack. It suddenly occurred to me if Swanson wanted to kill me or something . . . this would be the perfect place to do it. There were probably hundreds, even thousands, of isolated little bays like this all up and down the Southeast Coast. Swanson had mentioned that only he and a few other fishermen even knew this spot existed. He wouldn’t even need to do the killing with his own hands. He could simply abandon me here . . . leave me to the elements . . . the bears and wolves and lions that were said to inhabit all of these islands. If someone should come looking for me months later, what was the likelihood they’d even think of searching out a place like this? Staring wide-eyed at the foliage massed in green along shore, I argued that I’d become hysterical. But why else would any normal person want to supper on a goddamn beach in a hollow like this? And why had Swanson pointed out those rock carvings to me? Surely, he was trying to spook me; toying with my stupid puny little mind.
I was still musing over these matters when Swanson emerged from the wheelhouse.
“O.K.,” he said—a bag of groceries under an arm. “Get in the skiff.”
I just stared at him.
This was too unfucking believable. Strict Hollywood script.
“Get in the skiff!” he repeated.
I got in.
Two hours later I trudged up and down the shell and gravel beach searching for more firewood. It was eleven o’ clock and still we had not eaten. The moon, at last quarter, had just cleared the eastern tree line: putting the hills, mountains and trees surrounding this obscure, tear-shaped bay in a dull phosphorescent light. The air hummed with quiet: the crackle of our fire, the soft lapping of the water along shore, the crunch of my own boots the only sounds reaching my ears. Fifty yards away, following me as I moved up the beach, the Western World strayed on its anchor: its white paint-chipped exterior ghost-like in the purple gloom.
Swanson had started the fire over an hour ago, but was waiting, he said, for better embers. He sat cross-legged a yard from the flames, stirring the fire occasionally with a switch he’d broken off a nearby sapling. Although he’d shown no obvious signs that he’d taken me here to do me harm, he had appeared more interested in keeping our fire well-stoked than in engaging in any of the half-dozen conversations I’d attempted to bring about.
I stopped when I came to the beached rowboat. I’d stumbled upon it earlier while taking a leak. The rowboat was half eaten away with rot, half-hidden beneath a clump of salmonberries. Gingerly pushing aside some the shrub’s thorny vines, I began to kick out pieces of wood from the skeleton of its bottom.
Along with offering a ready source of fuel, the boat had become something of a mystery to me. Its bleached weather wood had a petrified quality to it which made it hard to say just how long it had been here. It may have been only a year or two, then, just as easily, twenty or thirty years. And how had it arrived at this obscure spot? Had a fisherman seeking refuge from a downed vessel paddled here on it? The surrounding trees and mountains would have provided fortress from the rough seas and winds outside this bay. If he’d been able to forage through the summer . . . had been able fend of the bears and wolves and lions . . . had been able to provide makeshift shelter for himself . . . would he have been able to endure the long white season (seasons?) of winter? Searching distractedly though the dark bramble and underbrush outlining the beach . . . I imagined this Robinson Crusoe of mine had, indeed, survived and was running wild, half-mad on the island at this moment . . . that years of isolation from humankind had brought him to a Neanderthal state . . . that he’d learned to feed on the raw flesh of deer and fish and wild goat . . . and that he was, at this very moment, spying on Swanson and myself . . . sizing us up.
And it was while my head was full of such thoughts that the answer came to me. BURN THE WESTERN WORLD! BURN THE FUCKER DOWN! It wouldn’t be hard to do. Our skiff was just yards away, both paddles still in it, almost inviting me to crawl in. Swanson’s back was still turned towards me, and from where the trawler had strayed it would be almost out of his view. I’d start it in the engine room, of course. Swanson kept gallon cans of gas there and oily rags. Splash a little Boy Scout juice around; dump out a box of matches, light a stick. By the time I was back ashore with the skiff, the first billows of smoke would be issuing from the wheelhouse—
A knotty piece of wood popping back at the fire, followed by cursing about the hold up on the wood. Scooping up an armload of the ivory planks, I trudged back to the fire’s pit.
Swanson was removing something from the grocery bag when I arrived within the perimeter of the fire’s light. I stopped in my tracks. Since the moment Swanson had appeared with the grocery bag under an arm, I’d suspected him of packing a gun inside the sack. Observing that Swanson was only moving the salmon now, I moved cautiously forward.
“Mmm. . . “ I said, smiling when Swanson glanced up at me. “Salmon smells good.”
Swanson nodded, but said nothing.
Dropping the wood in its designated pile, I sat across the flames from Swanson; bracing me tired back against a rock. I watched Swanson reposition the salmon, wrapped in aluminum foil, between two rocks. Then he brought out a can of beans, opened its lid with a can-opener, and placed it on a flat rock beside the salmon. He peeled off some foil from the salmon and covered the lid of the can with it. Then he resumed his cross-legged position. Once again his eyes turned towards the faint display of aurora borealis shimmering pale green, pink and blue above the northern tree line.
I shifted uneasily: kicking sand and gravel into the fire’s pit. There was something too damn serene and removed about Swanson tonight. And it wasn’t because he was stoned: he’d gone cold turkey now for over 24 hours. There was something else going on. I was sure of it. It was almost as though he was trying to lull me off guard. I was so out of it now it wouldn’t take much. Already waves of sleepiness were oozing into my head in thicker and thicker waves; getting harder and harder to fight off. If I didn’t try something soon—try to get to the bottom of this—it might be too late.
Clearing my throat, I asked, point blank:
“What are we doing here?”
Swanson looked down from the display of lights, his chiseled features hatchet-like in the red play of the fire.
I hesitated. Maybe it wasn’t smart to make my suspicions known. Still, there was this tiredness to consider: another wave of it pressing down on me now like morphine.
“I said what are we doing here?”
I leaned forward, back straight, fully alert.
Swanson grinned horribly—his eyes narrowing into flint-like slits.
“What do you mean?”
I glanced knowingly at the grocery bag. The image of Swanson suddenly removing the revolver from the sack, and pointing the barrel at my forehead and firing from point-blank range flashed through my head: causing me to kick up more sand and gravel into the fire’s pit.
“I mean what’s inside the bag?”
I flinched at a loud hissing noise from the fire. The butter and lemon juice Swanson had earlier placed in the salmon’s belly had begun to leak through the foil. Distracted, Swanson flipped the salmon over. He opened the foil pouch, and spread the steaming butter and lemon juice more evenly with a stick. Then he closed the pouch, looking across the flames as though he’d forgotten what it was we were talking about.
Again I hesitated. What if I was wrong about there being a revolver in the bag? Surely there were easier—legal—means Swanson could take to get his revenge of me. He could have simply called the Coast Guard and had me arrested on assault charges. Why risk going to prison? This whole scenario—taking me to a deserted island to off me with a .38—was no doubt a result of too many books and movies and TV. Yet . . . I couldn’t help it. I had to know if there was a gun in the goddamn sack. The risk of not knowing was too great.
Suddenly, without realizing exactly what it was I was going to do, I scrambled across the sand on all fours and snatched the grocery bag right out of Swanson’s hands.
“Hey!” Swanson exclaimed. “What the fuck? Give it back!”
Smiling crazily, I shuffled backwards in the heavy sand, tripping ass backwards over the pile of firewood. Scrambling to my feet, I turned the bag upside down and shook out its contents: a box of matches, some utensils and paper plated, and a can of peaches.
“Peaches!” I shouted. “Where’s the gun?”
“Peaches? Gun?” Swanson said, on his feet now. “What the fuck are you talking about?”
I dropped to my knees, picking up several of the items littered at my feet. I turned the bag upside down and shook it a second time. Finally, convinced there was no gun, I let the bag fall to the sand. My face burned in humiliation. I glanced towards Swanson, wishing to explain. But it was too late. Swanson had already figured it out for himself.
“Oh, shit! Oh, jeez! Oh, Christ!” Swanson exclaimed, falling to his knees double-up in laughter. “A gun! Peaches! In a grocery bag! Bang! Bang! Oh, man! That’s the funniest thing—“
But was unable to continue: overcome as he was by the situation.
Realizing how utterly ridiculous I must have appeared scrambling on all fours like a crab for the bag of groceries, I began to laugh myself. First just a little snicker; then a few more; finally whooping nearly as loud as Swanson.
When we’d both calmed down enough to talk, I wiped the tears from my eyes and stammered out the only words I could think to say:
“I guess you know I’ll have to quit now.”
Wiping tears from his own eyes, Swanson righted himself in the sand, and answered:
“Fine. Quit. Better yet . . . you’re fired!”
I gathered up the plates and utensils I’d scattered about, and after Swanson had checked the meat with a fork, we began to eat.
After a good amount of time had passed, Swanson said:
“Adam? Can I ask you a question?”
“All that stuff Miss Sue Ann Bonnet fed you about Mother Earth and life out of balance and thinking about future generations: You bought all that, didn’t you?”
I nodded again.
There was a long pause, and then Swanson said:
“This is what I think, Adam. In the end—in the grand scheme of things– ol’ Mother Earth will shake us off her like a tick off a dog’s back.” And, after another pause, he smiled and added:
“The trick, kid, is in how you ride the bitch.”
About the Author:
Dave Barrett lives and writes out of Missoula, Montana. His fiction has appeared most recently in Potomac Review, Cowboy Jamboree and Midwestern Gothic. His story–EL PARADISIO–will appear in Issue 24 of Quarter After Eight. He teaches writing at the Missoula College and is at work on a new novel.