Odie had bumped the throttle into high idle to keep the hydraulics running, so they had to shout at each other to be heard. They were drifting, waiting out the last few minutes to five o’clock. They were within yards of where Odie wanted to make the first set. Earlier in the day he had said that he wanted no slimy deck gear or boots in the cabin, and although he meant it when he said it, at a quarter to five he ignored his rule and ducked into the cabin with his boots on. He emerged with a carton of cigarettes and tucked them under a bungee cord on the flying bridge. “Smokes,” he shouted, louder even than was necessary to be heard over the diesel clatter, and he pointed to where he had just secured them. Then he handed out Bic lighters. He was moving quickly and grinning. When he gave Adam his lighter, a blue one, Odie looked Adam in the face and shouted. “Blue. OK. Keep it dry. Here we go.” With open hands Odie slapped Adam’s chest hard enough to push Adam back half a step, then he shot up the ladder to the flying bridge. Cole was smiling and leaning back against the transom, rolling a buoy under his boot. Adam tried the lighter but got the flint wheel wet with his thumb. He unbuttoned his deck gear and pushed into a dry pocket.
The whole fleet was moving, but not in any one direction. The boats were swarming, jockeying for position, pulsing diesel smoke into the air. The noise of shouting and clanging metal bounced over the water and joined the background crackle of radio chatter from the VHF radio that Odie had wired into the deck speaker. Voices argued over which piece of ocean was whose and who had better get the hell out of the set line. Adam and Cole took their positions near the stern and waited on Odie’s order. The clamor and smell of where they were settled on Adam, and the desire to kill many thousands of fish dominated his thoughts. He was surprised by this, but he decided it was probably honest and therefore healthy, and anyway, every living thing had to die eventually, especially living things like herring, which seemed to die in fairly spectacular numbers, so it might as well be in the service of raising tuition money. When he looked up to the flying bridge for the order to set, Odie was doing jumping jacks with a cigarette in the corner of his mouth. It was clear and sunny and the water was so flat it seemed impossible that it had ever been any other way. Adam squinted and thought he might have somehow acquired the ability to see better, or that maybe the world had become sharper.
When the announcement came, the voice on the radio was female, which made Adam realize he hadn’t heard a female voice in over a week. There was just enough time for him to wonder what she looked like, what she might be wearing. The female voice said that by emergency order the Alaska Department of Fish and Game declared drift gillnet fishing for herring to be permitted in Togiak Bay from five p.m. to five a.m. Before she had finished her sentence there were a hundred nets going into the water, including the net over the stern roller of the Vice.
The state biologists had been right on the money. Within an hour the herring began their march, balling up in the millions, spraying eggs in the billions, and plowing into the nets set in their path. The fishermen weren’t alone. In every direction the sky was filled with screaming sea birds diving and fighting over dime bright silver fish. Eagles cruised low, scattering the gulls and picking fish off the surface. They drifted just yards over the Vice, unafraid, their eyes full of menace. The first sea lions appeared about an hour into the opening— first just a handful of sleek shadows in the water, then dozens of them, then too many to count. They rolled and corkscrewed and leapt from the water like they were paid to entertain. Under the boat Adam could see the shoals of fish—and when a sea lion crashed the school, the water turned instantly silver and the surface boiled with fish fleeing for their lives. The silver flashes spread out in every direction like giant sparks. Everywhere there was eating and fucking and dying in spectacular Technicolor violence. Men and machines and any living thing with the teeth for it materialized out of creation to feast, flying and diving and elbowing into the protein. The herring absorbed it and they kept coming— in the teeming millions, spilling eggs and milt in milky clouds that bloomed from nothing to the size of Illinois cornfields in seconds. The sea lions and the eagles and the men caught everything they could hold, and still millions more fish came over the bar into the bay.
Odie was as good as his reputation. The net came over the stern, a carpet of struggling silver. Set after set they were “in the fish,” even after the tide swung and the schools spread out in smaller balls. The other boats took the swing time to regroup and mend nets shredded in the melee, but Odie was still on fish. Cole and Adam stood at opposite sides of the deck with the net stretched between them and shook it as it came over the roller. They shook it until their shoulders burned and the herring flew from the net in a shower of blood and torn gill plates and eggs. Their faces and hair became crusted with gore. When Adam licked his lips he felt scales and tasted salt.
Odie’s commands were short. “Set.” “Now.” “Let’s Pick it up.” Adam and Cole shook fish free of the net and Odie pushed them into the hold with a plastic snow shovel. While the net was soaking he fetched cigarettes and root beers and cans of Spam. Just past nine o’clock a cold front dropped down on them from the mountains. The air was twenty-five degrees colder in the interior and it picked up speed as it came down, hitting them at an honest twenty knots. “Fish and Game” got on the radio and extended the opening another four hours, to nine a.m. Odie found a school that every other boat had somehow missed and he set the Vice’s net in a semi-circle around it. He set the net free to drift and brought the Vice around to the open side of the semi-circle, directly between the school and open water. He nosed the bow up to within feet of the black and silver mass, but the school didn’t move. Odie revved the engine, but the fish remained oblivious, and then the net started to drift away from the fish. Odie screamed “fuck” several times from his perch on the flying bridge, threw his coffee cup into the center of the school, and then he screamed at Cole and Adam to act like they were working for a living and, “make some fucking noise, goddamn it.” Adam yelled, and then feeling foolish he stuck his head in the cabin and grabbed a heavy pipe wrench from the tool box. He stepped quickly to the side, and leaned over with the wrench in his hand. The Vice was drifting into the school and Adam could distinguish individual herring swimming just inches below the surface. He raised the heavy wrench and beat it on the side of the hull once. The booming noise was spectacular, but the wrench bounced off the hull and flew from Mike’s hand. It hit the surface a few feet shy of the main ball of fish. Handle first, it went in neatly and didn’t make much of a splash.
“Christ,” said Cole. “Here’s hoping we aren’t going to need that.”
The fish spooked and reversed course. Adam watched the school hit the net, slowly at first, and then the small buoys at the top of the net started to dance on the surface as fish beneath the water tugged for their lives, and then the whole school inexplicably rushed dead into the net and an explosion of foam boiled at the surface. Odie stood behind the wheel and screamed “Die Die Die.”
The temperature continued to fall and by midnight it was in the low thirties. Adam’s wet hands burned in the wind, and then they became numb. While the net was soaking and his immediate labor wasn’t urgently required, he wrapped his hands around the exhaust stack. This worked for a few seconds, warming his hands just enough to take the edge off the numbness, but then he would be required to grab a line or fetch the hook for the net, and inside a step from the warm stack his hands were as numb as they had been. The numbness in his fingers made it harder to work, especially when he had to find the thin monofilament net mesh and dig it from the gills of a fish that wouldn’t shake loose. He didn’t feel it when the mesh slid up under his thumbnail, and when Cole reeled up another six feet on the hydraulic drum, Adam’s thumbnail popped most of the way off. Adam gasped and swore, loud enough to get Cole and Odie’s attention. Work stopped, and the three of them stood close to each other. It was dark. The fish on the deck were flopping out their last, filling the air with an irregular drumbeat. Adam held up his hand. The thumbnail stood up straight off the back of Adam’s thumb, at a 90 degree angle to where it had been just moments before.
“That’s some grisly looking shit right there,” said Odie.
Cole squinted. “Sorry man.” He said. “Does it hurt?”
“Actually, not so much as you’d think,” said Adam. “Kind of a burning sensation.”
Odie lit two cigarettes and held one out for Adam, who took it with his uninjured hand. “That has to come the rest of the way off,” said Odie. “It’s got to come off and then you can tape it. You aren’t going to be able to work with it like that.” Adam smoked and said nothing. Cole was nodding.
“Right. I’ll do it,” said Odie, and he stepped to the cabin.
“It’ll grow back,” said Cole, “but it’ll look kind of fucked up for a while.”
“Like pulling off a band-aid,” Odie said, returning with pliers and duct tape. “Just one quick snap.”
Adam held up his thumb, and Cole watched through a squint. Odie looked at Adam’s thumbnail closely and smiled. “You know what you do with a fat chick?”
“What?” Adam looked at the deck, and then decided he would look right at it instead. He was thinking that there was still quite a bit of the nail attached to his thumb, including a kind of meaty looking part on the left side.
“A fat chick. I used to have this really fat chick in Tacoma when I was down there taking classes at U-dub. There wasn’t a lot to choose from in Tacoma, so I was taking what I could get, and what I could get was a fat chick. Anyway, you know how you do it?”
“No,” said Adam.
“Well, I’ve had the pleasure, and I’ll tell you, there’s a trick to it. Sounds crazy, but the trick is you roll ‘em in flour.” Odie grinned. “Then you just fuck the wet spot.”
Adam saw a flash, and he tasted citrus, and he found his hand was tucked under his other arm. Odie was holding up the pliers and his thumbnail. He heard Cole say “Pretty slick, Odie. You might have missed your calling there.”
Odie nodded in satisfaction, and then he said, “I considered it. Had to accept I was never going to make it through organic chemistry, and that was all there was to that. I’m good at chasing herring. I’m hungry. More Spam?”
Adam smeared his thumb with a dollop of bag balm and then wrapped it in duct tape. Odie made them more coffee and they kept at it. Their luck held, and through the night they steadily packed in more fish until the Vice rode low in the water.
With an hour still left in the opening Odie pulled the last set and headed for the tender. “We got no place left to put ‘em,” he said, and it was true. The hold was full and the deck was awash in herring. They were over the ankles of Adam’s boots, the gills of a few still working.
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