The Salty Dawg

Three nights after I left the Arctic Storm, I heard my name as I passed the Salty Dawg. I looked back. A small, thin man hurried after me. His walk had something hopeful, almost jaunty, in it, but his face looked tired under its graying stubble.

“Buy you a drink and we’ll talk about a job,” he called. The skipper of the Arctic Storm came out behind him, shouting, “Damn you, Jay, you’re stealing my deckhand. You’re gonna work for me, aren’t you, sweetheart?”

I let myself be herded inside, strangely elated at the thought of fishing again.

“What’ll you have?” Jay asked. He hooked his feet around the barstool, spread his bony elbows, and tilted his head at me. His eyes shone. “You’d rather work for me, wouldn’t you, sweetie? I got a lot better boat than Don here. Lot better.” He winked. “My other deckhand is healthy, too.”

“I’ll have a Rainier,” I said. It was what they were drinking. “Thanks. But I think Don has first dibs.”

“Nope. He doesn’t. He’s fooling you. He doesn’t even have a crew lined up.”

“Yeah, Jay’s bought you a drink,” Don conceded. “Guess you’re working for him.” A sour look spread over his plump face. “I haven’t found a replacement for Everett, anyhow. He fucking bailed on me, left me with my ass hanging out in the wind. That’s the last time I go bail for a fucking deckhand.”

“Leave him in the drunk tank next time,” Jay advised.

The bartender set my beer in front of me, along with a shot of peppermint schnapps and a mug of tepid hot chocolate. I raised an eyebrow.

“That’s from that guy,” she said, and pointed down the bar.

“Oh, yeah, he always buys those for women. Must’ve known it to work one time,” Jay said. He leaned over my shoulder and poured the schnapps into the mug for me. “Hey, did I tell you I gave Everett a ride out the road that day you guys came back in? He claimed he was heading for Anchorage.”

“Bet he never did go to a doctor,” Don said.

“Hell, there wasn’t anything wrong with him except he was coming down off a month-long binge. You were lucky he didn’t get the DTs on the boat,” Jay said. “You know, I asked him why he was quitting, and he said, ‘There’s a woman on the boat.’ I said, ‘Well, Everett, what did she do? Did she hit on you?’ but he just kept saying ‘She’s a woman,’ like that explained it all.” He laughed at the look on my face. “Some guys are like that—if something goes wrong, it’s the woman’s fault. Can’t hardly blame them. I wouldn’t hire you myself if I wasn’t desperate.”

“She’s a girl, but she’s a good worker,” Don said. “Weighs about as much as a goddamn Pomeranian, but she’s got enough grit for a two-hundred-pounder.”

Jay waved for the bartender and ordered fresh drinks. I tried to catch her eye to refuse, but she slid another shot in my direction.

A man spoke from down the bar. “That the girl took a job with you, Don?”

“Yeah.”

“All of us on the Totem, we had bets on how long she’d stick around. Nobody thought she’d last more than ten minutes.”

“She did okay. God knows I didn’t think so when I hired her. Just couldn’t find anybody else.”

“Get her a drink,” the man told the bartender. She grabbed a shot glass, poured it full, and slapped it down to join the two in front of me. I shook my head, but she looked past me, indifferently. Trapped, I gulped the last of the first shot and started on the second. I was still hurt at Everett’s words. I’d thought he liked me, and the thought had helped, but now it seemed I’d been mistaken. I thought of him standing by the road, and I wondered why he left. It seemed like there was nowhere else for him to go. Or maybe he knew that he was trapped, too. Maybe that was why.

Uneasily, I pulled back from my thoughts.

“My name’s Doug,” the man from the Totem introduced himself. “So, did you make any money?”

Don caught my eye and shook his head.

I said, “We had to come back early because of Everett.”

“Oh, yeah, I heard about that. Season’s tapering off, anyway. We didn’t put in more than a few hundred pounds ourselves last trip. Figure we’ll haul our gear in pretty soon.”

“The Totem always does better than anyone else,” Jay told me, as though warning me not to expect too much from him.

“We do okay,” Doug said. “We got our pots way down in the entrance. Fishing’s good, but the weather’s just snotty. And the cost of fuel takes a big bite out of our check.”

I took another sip of schnapps and hot chocolate and washed it down with a gulp of beer. It tasted foul, but I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. I looked at the men. They were looking at the bar, at the bottles behind it, and at the bartender’s backside. I picked up my glass, cupped it hidden in my hands against my knees, and poured it out onto the sawdust floor. The liquid disappeared.

Jay tapped the bar for another round. “We need to celebrate me hiring the best-looking deckhand in Homer.” The bartender handed me another shot. Defeated, I stood up to go.

“Which boat’s yours?” I asked Jay.

“The American Eagle. It’s tied up along the transient float.” Don laughed at that, but Jay ignored him. “We’ll head out at four in the morning. You going to get your gear?”

“Yeah. Okay if I sleep on the boat tonight?”

“Yeah. I just hired another deckhand, name of Scott. He’s green too, but I’ll teach you guys. He’ll be on the boat tonight as well.”

“All right.” I turned away. The room swayed around me as I made for the door. I heard the men laughing as I grabbed the door too hard and almost lost my balance.

Outside, the evening was growing dark. Snow fell, blanketing the water and blotting out the far reaches of Kachemak Bay. As I slid down the ramp, steep with low tide, I heard the flat, detached tones of the weather recording come on outside the harbor master’s.

Southwest winds to fifteen knots, becoming west twenty before midnight. Seas ten feet, building to twelve feet by morning. Rain and fog.

I hunched my shoulders, feeling cold and scared. The American Eagle lay at the foot of the ramp. A blue, steel-hulled boat, forty feet long with a high wheelhouse and a long, low-railed back deck. Its sides seeped rust under a bloom of worn-out paint. I pounded on the door but no one answered, so I walked in and lay down on a bunk, pushing aside a pile of magazines. The cabin was windowless, walled with steel, with only one door through which the yellow dock lights shone. Maybe it was because of that that I couldn’t sleep. I felt as if I were lying in a jail, and the narrow bunk with its flat, hard, sticky mattress did not help.

After a while I got back up and went on deck. The moon was rising, and the last light was dying from the west in a faint, wintry glow. On the next boat over two men talked quietly. Their voices, echoing out over the water, had a lonely sound. I stood looking across the harbor. The tide was coming in, and the boats shifted restlessly at their moorings. Streams of foam ran along their sides.

The water shifted before my eyes, swelling vastly under the fabric of boats. I shivered, afraid in a way I couldn’t name.

Born on a homestead outside Fairbanks, Alaska, Rosemary McGuire worked for fifteen years as a commercial fisherwoman and has traveled most of Alaska’s river systems by canoe. Currently she is a research technician in the Arctic. Her book of short stories, The Creatures at the Absolute Bottom of the Sea, was published in 2015.

Excerpt from Rough Crossing: An Alaskan Fisherwoman’s Memoir by Rosemary McGuire. Published with permission from The University of New Mexico Press.

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