Smitty runs a small operation. Not quite a commercial fishing boat like some of the others based along the dock that go out for days at a time. It’d been him and Old Charlie for the longest time. But Old Charlie’s rheumatism had gotten really bad and he’s known in town as a pretty miserable drunk. Too much of a hindrance so it’s likely Old Charlie’ll be spending his days making bathtub gin.
Travis stayed away from the waters for the past two years. Stu knew why, keeping the same distance. The fact that the town is rimmed by the ocean doesn’t help. But fears need to be faced. Travis had gotten up at four a.m. when it was still dark. The quietude of pre-mornings is energizing. Poured two separate thermoses of black coffee and caribou soup. Callie and Eli still fully asleep, which made him glad. He would have been upset if he woke her when she obviously needed solid rest.
Took the pickup down empty roads. The sun flirting with rising, traveling in long orange fingers across the earth. The blackness of the sky turning a bewitching purple. Clouds like puffs of endless smoke. The air redolent of quaking aspens and white spruce as he sipped his boiling coffee, the sludge warming. He held his breath when he arrived.
The docks are full of life, unlike the barren roads. Fishermen hauling out for the start of the season, which picks up even more once summer blossoms. The winter a time of smoking, packaging, and shipping off the catches of the year. He visualizes his fish shack for a second, a beacon off the docks. Full of regulars like at Elson’s. Bisques and fresh catches of the day with Callie either cooking or waiting tables and Travis getting together the menus, his role the face of the place. Eli coming in after school, munching on his favorite fish sticks. He lets the vision go, whipping himself enough.
Smitty’s all smiles when Travis gets to the boat. A small affair but enough to get the job done. Smitty with his stringy hair, bushy eyebrows, a hooked nose, and a swirl of a beard.
Fingers always slicked with oil, palm lines blackened, and hands pink and raw.
“Ready to bust your ass, greenhorn?” he asks Travis, his voice gritty from a lifetime of cigars. One already chewed down, tucked between his bottom teeth and lip, a thin line of smoke blowing from the cherry.
The waters are choppy and Travis’s stomach is unused to the abuse. The black coffee sloshing around. He helps with letting the skiff go to set the net. Waits for the skiff to close the net. Piles the web while not letting it tangle up. Uses hydraulics to haul the catch onto the deck. Rather paltry bounty, not being fully in season yet. Repeats the whole chain. Sifts through and tosses all the garbage, cans and plastic bottles, refuse and gunk. Hands smelling of salt and sewage by the second go around, fingernails black.
“How’s Papa Clifford been doing?” Smitty asks, still at work on his cigar even though it’s no longer smoking.
“Much the same. He’s moved in with my folks.” “That’s probably for the best.”
“Oh, God bless. That is a life. And all his time in Alaska. He’s a sourdough.”
“Doesn’t see much, hearing’s pretty gone. But he’s still sharp. Mind clearer than most.” “Fought in World War II, didn’t he?”
“Yup, front line. Shot in the ass and actually kept going. Had the bullet taken out, stitched up, and then went right back.”
“Different generation they were. Built of brick. Not a pansy among them. Kids these days so sensitive. Got a nephew who makes crying his job. Wouldn’t be caught dead out on a boat like this. How’s your son by the way?”
“Eli’s great. We’re all great.” “C’mon, help me pull this in.”
They hoist in the net, a few salmon flapping in the grooves. Travis hunches down to sort away the flotsam. His stomach roiling, doing backflips.
“I think I might puke, Smitty.” “Do it over the stern.”
Travis crawls to the back of the boat, focusing on a lighthouse along the horizon to keep him grounded. A swell of bile creeps up his throat but manages to stay intact. He spits it out, leaning over the edge, the waves rollicking below. This ocean brings the town life but has taken it away too. The final resting place for his brother who went out high on bad shit. He never stood a chance, not even from birth. His body missing for the longest days ever experienced.
Now Travis vomits tar-black due to the coffee, sour on the back of his tongue, watching it break apart and float away into the void of the Arctic.
The workday is moderately successful. Cooler full of cleaned fish. Travis tired in his bones. They dock the boat and crack open beers, Smitty getting froth all over his beard. Travis blinking away any queasiness. Feeling good, worthy, semi-formed again. Stu had been right as usual.
“Got a few fish packed away for your family,” Smitty says, nodding at a tiny cooler beside the giant one.
“You don’t have to, Smitty.”
“I know. You earned it.” He clinks his bottle against Travis’s. “So tomorrow again at the ass crack of dawn?”
Travis grins. “Yeah. Cool, man.”
“I tell ya, you’re a lot more reliable than Old Charlie and smell a ton better.” Travis sniffs his collar. “Woof, jury’s out on that.”
“Finish your brew so I can get these salmon to The Angler in Nome.” Smitty raises his nose with his dirty finger at the mention of the place.
On the way home, the inside of the pickup full of a wafting fish aroma. The winding road empty like in the morning, but not lonely, simply still. Travis’s fingers stiff on the wheel, blistering pink. His eyes swelling with tears, the alien salt stinging. Not tears of sadness, this he decides. He won’t let them be anything more than a body’s way of letting go.
Lee Matthew Goldberg is the author of the novels The Ancestor, The Mentor the Desire Card, and Slow Down. He has been published in multiple languages and nominated for the 2018 Prix du Polar. ORANGE CITY is forthcoming in 2021. After graduating with an MFA from the New School, his writing has also appeared in The Millions, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, LitReactor, Monkeybicycle, Fiction Writers Review, Cagibi, the anthology Dirty Boulevard, The Montreal Review, The Adirondack Review, The New Plains Review, Underwood Press, and others. He is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of Fringe, dedicated to publishing fiction that’s outside-of-the-box. His pilots and screenplays have been finalists in Script Pipeline, Book Pipeline, Stage 32, We Screenplay, the New York Screenplay, Screencraft, and the Hollywood Screenplay contests. He is the co-curator of The Guerrilla Lit Reading Series and lives in New York City. Follow him at LeeMatthewGoldberg.com