- After Eden
Mark walked into the bar, big-shouldered, backlit by the sun. Wearing as always sweatpants filthy with grease, a baseball cap pulled tight over his eyes. He spoke to me quickly and quietly, beginning:
"It's the fish killingest dream come true . . ." Salmon by the millions were pooling up in Main Bay, on the far side of Prince William Sound. The companies were paying high prices, and as yet scarcely a handful of boats were fishing there. He'd heard it from a friend who owed him a favor.
I listened without speaking. At the end of the bar three old men breathed in, breathed out smoke, watching the town come and go past the windows. Telling stories perhaps. They had been fishermen all their lives. Each claimed to have known at least one day when there were plenty of fish, the price was high, and they themselves were strong and young enough to beat out the rest of the fleet and come home rich to the bar, to ring the tasseled bell that hung over the room and buy a round for the house. Now they hoarded their change, tipped carefully a dollar at a time and told their stories.
"Guys'll be talking about this for years to come," Mark said. "It'll never happen again." He was leaving town in a few minutes, and if we wanted, we could follow him.
I looked at my glass, thinking . . . both Nate and I were already drunk . . . should we go?
"You can sit here and drink if you want . . ." Mark shrugged, leaving his sentence hanging.
Nate stepped out of the restroom in time to see Mark disappear through the swinging doors. He walked toward me, eyebrows arched in a question, his young face flushed with whiskey. He looked tired. We had spent the last [End Page 30] few days fishing, our first trip on our own boat, and though we hadn't enough money to meet our bills, we'd come into the bar to celebrate.
"What did Mark have to say?"
"Tell you in a minute," I said, slipping my hand into his and leading him out the door. For though we'd heard Mark's stories before, we still had to try.
That was in May. On a July night, while running across the sound, our engine blew up. It made a sound like steel teeth gnashing, or the end of the world.
"Hole in one of the pistons," Nate said. "Might be able to fix it . . . maybe . . . if we can get back to town."
We went out on deck. The sea was like black glass. Nate got in the life raft and started towing with the little Johnson outboard. He was invisible as soon as he left the side of the boat. I could see only the tow line, taut, leading into darkness, stars bending down to touch the water on all sides. I tried to paddle, but it did no good.
It took three days to get back to town. We got a tow from a man who said we should have kept on running, tried to ruin what was left of the engine. Insurance won't help unless your boat's a total loss. Twelve thousand dollars for repairs, and fishing time lost. I took a job on land to pay the bills.
They say September is when boats burn down: the end of the season, when the men already know all that they made that year and there is no more room for hope. The man who towed us in told us the year before he'd seen smoke pouring off a boat near him, out on the Copper River Delta. Its owner was standing there on deck, his hands empty, until the man shouted at him, "Need help?" Together they'd put out the blaze. But the owner never thanked him for his help. Two days later he understood: the boat caught fire again, and this time it burned to the waterline.
That year in September, fire broke out in the engine room of the Aphrodite, a boat that I once worked on. The skipper...