A fifth-grade bully, a blossoming romance, a late-night crash
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Go-boy made a knife for his girlfriend. He called it an ulu, and I had never seen anything like it before. The ulu was an Eskimo fish-cutting knife. It was about the size and shape of the bill on a Lakers cap. When Go showed me how an ulu was used, he held its handle and carved up the air with card-dealing slashes. He said Eskimos never wasted any meat because of this knife.
The first time I saw the ulu was while I was working with Go-boy upriver at the fish-counting tower. Go was my cousin and had taken me under his wing and gotten me this summer job just a month after I’d landed in Alaska, and even though I hadn’t asked him for the help, it was perfect, because I needed to save money so I could move back to California. But Go thought he was helping me start a new life here — helping me become a part of the village, helping me leave my troubled past behind — and I didn’t tell him otherwise.
Our job was counting fish. Stationed on the tower, we took turns watching the river flow from left to right. We worked on and off, on and off, for boring four-day blocks. Go spent his downtime between shifts making gifts for his girlfriend or writing out his ideas for a better world, and I spent my time planning when to leave.
The handle of the ulu was made of ivory, taken from the tusk of an aivig — a walrus. He carved and polished it, chiseling designs, adding thin lines of ink like those on a tattoo. When he was done, the ivory handle was in the shape of a walrus like the one that had produced the tusk. The blade was cut from the metal of a Skilsaw blade, with the company logo still visible, and the teeth ground to a slick edge. Etched into the metal was an inscription:
The seed of God is in us.
Now, the seed of a pear tree
grows into a pear tree;
and a hazel seed
grows into a hazel tree;
a seed of God
— Meister Eckhart
The day I skipped a shift and left Go-boy alone for a solid twelve hours was the day he planned to give the ulu to his girl. Go-boy had been waiting for the right time. “Timing,” he’d said, “is everything.”
I anchored the boat to the shore. Go climbed down the fish-tower ladder carrying the ulu, a green ribbon tied around its handle. He went into the kitchen tent before I could even get up the riverbank.
When I joined him, he said, “Where you been?”
He bumped a can of peanuts, and it fell under the card table, spilling. I could smell the salt. The CB radio was switched off. The pale sunlight through the canvas tent walls gave everything a dead yellow color — the same dead yellow of the air the night before, swirling around an unfamiliar face and her unfamiliar nakedness, when I was supposed to be stationed high above the blue and green river, working.
I said, “I thought the moment is all that exists.”
“You saglu, man.”
“What’s ‘saglu’? And how can I be late in the moment?”
“ ‘Saglu’ is lie. You saglu. You said you’d come back.”
I knew it wasn’t possible for a normal person to count fish for twelve hours straight. It was crazy exhausting. But I also knew that Go-boy would be the type of guy to try it.
I said, “You should’ve just made up the numbers.”
“If we count wrong . . .” Go didn’t finish. Then he said, “I stuck my neck out to get you this job.”
I tried telling him we couldn’t be expected to sit on that tower and count every single fish that swam up or down. I tried telling him it was a give-or-take thing. Shoot for the averages. But he left the kitchen, carrying the ulu, and went back to his sleeping tent and zipped me out. Go-boy had been coming home from college every summer to work this job, so questioning him wasn’t a good idea.
Inside his sleeping tent he zipped himself into a mummy bag.
“I brought breakfast,” I said, lying.
Go-boy told me I should be on the tower, counting. His voice behind the canvas was sluggish. He flipped in his bag, sending a wave along the tent wall. He let out a deep-lung exhale so long and full it seemed it would balloon his whole shelter.
Within minutes on the tower the mosquitoes had caught up with me, so I lit a coil and balanced it on the empty soup can that was buried in a month’s worth of ashes. I looked over the river. Everything was the same — trees and hills and skies, a repeating panorama with no memorable markers or details. If it hadn’t been for the river and its one-way current, I would have had no sense of direction at all.
Fish were everywhere in the water, and it was my job to count them, to mark an ink slash under each type I saw and add up the total every half-hour. I had never thought about fish before I moved here and got this job. In rural Alaska fish were money. Fish let the Native Alaskans bank their year’s income in a few months and stock their freezers for the winter. People woke up in the morning for fish. People stayed up all night for fish. There were jobs catching them and cutting them, jobs weighing them and shipping them. Even people who’d left for college and gotten master’s degrees and doctorates had nets in the river and vacuum-packed fillets in their freezers.
I first learned the kinds of salmon: Silvers. Humpies. Kings. Reds. Chums. The fish swam upriver to spawn every year at about the same time. I figured the rest of the job would be simple: tower, clipboard, eyes — count the fish. But from twenty-five feet up, I couldn’t tell the humpies from the kings and the reds from the silvers. I’d grown up in California and hadn’t spent every summer of my life on the river, like most people in Alaska. And even after the training, with all the instruction about the different colorings and markings and sizings, there was still a built-in skill to recognizing and identifying a fish in the water, and I didn’t have it.
What I had was a plan to move home. This Alaska thing was just temporary, a summer trip to support my mom as she tried to reassert some control over her life. After twenty failed years in California, she’d decided to move back to the Alaskan village where she was raised, regardless of the secrets that had caused her to leave. She needed a new start, and so here I was with her, but I was also working with Go at fish camp so I could afford to fly my butt home as soon as the weather started to turn cold.
Go-boy woke up and sat at the picnic table below the tower and gulped coffee from a plastic sports bottle. He was wearing a tight gold T-shirt that said, United States of Alaska. In his hand he had a black pen, and he was redrawing a Jesus tattoo on his right forearm. This tattoo was the result of his new consciousness — the concepts he filled notebooks with, the idea of a heaven on earth — and he’d been telling me that, any day now, he would fly into Anchorage and get the tattoo done for real.
“Jesus needs more hair!” I yelled down to him.
He set the pen on the ragged picnic table, wedging it between two flakes of peeling paint. Jesus needs more: it was a game we had started last week with his tattoo idea. I said, “Jesus needs more beard. Jesus needs more attitude,” and Go said, “Jesus needs more fish counters.” Now Go just turned to the water. He could probably identify more fish in five minutes from the riverbank than I could in an hour from up in the tower.
I said, “Jesus needs more nothing.”
“We have to scrub the tarp,” Go-boy said. The white plastic tarp was anchored to the bottom of the river, stretched shore to shore, like a submerged sidewalk. It made it easier to see the fish when they swam by.
I was looking for something to snack on in the kitchen tent. I was looking for more matches. I was grabbing a handful of skipping rocks to toss from the tower. I was doing anything to avoid work.
I asked, “Ain’t you tired?”
“The tarp’s dirty,” he said, “and it’s low tide.”
Go-boy already had on his green waders, and the scrub brushes were piled on the picnic table.
I said, “I can still see those fish.”
Go-boy waded in and scrubbed the tarp with his hands and arms submerged, holding the long handle of the brush, pushing and pulling against the current. I joined him, waist-deep in the river. The tattoo from his forearm bled off into the water, threads of ink unraveling. Upriver the fish hovered along the bottom.
“Good thing you didn’t pay too much for that,” I said, pointing at his arm.
It was then — when I was almost up to my chest in water, watching Go work — that this enormous fish swam straight at me. It was slow and ugly and right at the surface, with its back fin cutting out of the water, and the damn thing was the length of my leg and twice as fat. I said, “Sick!” and swung the scrubber and nailed the fish behind the gills. It felt like thumping a sandbag with a baseball bat. The fish wasn’t even fazed. It just changed directions.
I said, “This ugly shit swam right at me.”
“Maluksuk?” Go said.
“It looked like it was covered in pus.”
“Yeah, man. Maluksuk.”
I looked around, all thrown off now. Go-boy went back to scrubbing like nothing had happened, like there was nothing to worry about, but I was rattled. I asked Go what a maluksuk was.
He adjusted an elastic strap on his waders and told me that certain types of salmon run at certain times. He went through the list — kings, silvers, and so on. He told me that when they’re done running, when they’re spawned out, they become half dead.
“Like zombies?” I asked.
He said the Eskimo word for these half-dead fish was maluksuk. A maluksuk became greenish brown and moldy looking. It swam around like a normal fish, except way slower. It wasn’t conscious or afraid. It had lost its survival instinct. A lot of times a maluksuk would swim right up the bank and beach itself and die. He said, “You can see them on the shoreline, their gills opening and closing, still trying to breathe, their bodies flipping every couple of minutes.”
“They’re really half dead?”
Go-boy said they mostly appeared in the river later on, at the end of summer. He told me I should have already known about them, because we were supposed to count the maluksuks separate from the healthy fish. But from up on that tower, I couldn’t tell the difference between the fully living fish and the half dead.
I told Go I was done trying to wash the fish sperm off the white plastic, that the brushes were no good. He kept scrubbing and said, “We need to do this,” determined to make the tarp clean.
“Shouldn’t one of us count fish?” I asked.
We both bobbed along in the water. I slapped at a bug on the surface, and Go-boy leaned into the current, scrubbing at a stain the size of a manhole cover. Then he asked me, “So, what did you do in town last night?”
“You know there’s nothing to do in town.”
“Can’t even make something up, ah?”
“OK,” I said. “Truth? I was looking out for a girl. I was helping her.”
Go laughed and said, “Saglu.”
He said, “Man, nevermind. A new day is a new day, so just forget about it.”
That same maluksuk I’d hit with the scrubber was skirting the far shore, cutting its top fin out of the water, almost beaching itself.
I said, “So a seed of God grows into God, but the seed of a salmon grows into a maluksuk?”
Go looked right at me. River water channeled between us in a constant washing. With my scrubber I pointed at the dying fish dragging itself along the gravel bank, confused, not sure where it was or which direction it was supposed to swim in.
I’d gotten myself into trouble with a girl back in California, just a few months before moving to Alaska. She and I were talking at a mall, joking. This girl had an angry, sexy look, a face shaped like an arrowhead and hair pulled back so tight it looked painted on. I was standing around waiting for my friends by the food court. In those days I was still gang-banging, and I needed to ride out the rest of my time without drawing too much attention to myself. My clique didn’t know I was leaving town. They didn’t know I was about to ditch them for Unalakleet, Alaska. The girl I was talking to said her name was Lily, and I convinced myself she really was a lily and not the girlfriend of a rival banger.
It was nothing. The girl was telling me that she had left her little brother in the Lego store while she shopped, and we were laughing about that, and I was trying to get her number when my friend Kid Cab interrupted us and told me that my ride — him and his pristine Cadillac — was leaving. The girl recognized Kid Cab. I could see it in her frown. She was holding a small shopping bag full of shampoos and body lotions, and she took a step back, called us assholes, flashed some Eighteenth Street shit, and bolted. I thought it was funny, but Kid Cab reminded me she ran with one of Santa Ana’s biggest cliques. One of our rival cliques.
So I forgot about the girl until a month later, when I was with my friends in the parking lot of El Curtido. Our stomachs were full, and we were just getting into Kid’s car when a small SUV busted a hard left and came at us. I could see the girl riding shotgun, pointing and smiling like she had when we were joking about her little brother. The driver wasn’t letting up, and the SUV rocketed right into the grill of Kid’s Caddy before we could get out of the parking space. The impact busted Kid Cab’s head on the wheel. The guys behind me got thrown into the back of my seat, pinning me against the dash. When I looked up through the cracked windshield, I saw the SUV steaming, the inflated air bags like clown cheeks. And I saw that girl and her Eighteenth Street boys running off, flashing gang signs and middle fingers and big-ass grins.
I wanted to tell Kid I should never have tried talking to her, that I was sorry about his car, but he was unconscious.
I sat on the picnic table and watched for maluksuks, pointing and asking Go-boy if that was one, or if that was one. He was still in the water, scrubbing the tarp. He wasn’t amused, and I couldn’t seem to find a way to make things right.
“Shouldn’t you count fish?” Go asked.
“That’s a dead one,” I said. “Right? Come on, dude, just tell me.”
Go turned away and went back to scrubbing. He said, “There shouldn’t be any maluksuks this early in the season.”
This would keep up all summer. Anytime we were near water, I’d ask Go if that fish was a maluksuk, or that fish. He’d say, “You should know.” And then later in the summer I’d point at a sea gull and ask if it was a maluksuk. Or a husky leashed to a steel pole in a dog lot. Or a Lund fishing boat in the river. Or a rusted bike. “Is that one?” Go would be trying to fix his AMC wagon, and I’d ask him if it was a maluksuk. He’d laugh, say, “For real.” What about that girl? That house? Was this village a maluksuk?
We heard an engine coming up the river. It was rare to hear a boat on a weekday morning. It was still out of sight, getting louder and quieter and louder again as it curved around each bend. Go-boy came to the shore, dropped his waders on the ground, and ducked into the kitchen to start cleaning up in case it was someone important. I climbed the tower.
A flatboat with an old white guy and two Native girls on board pulled up to shore. The guy was Mr. Larsen, our boss. He had gray hair that had been disrupted by the windy boat ride. His round glasses were small bull’s-eyes, and he had too much skin around his neck, like a flat tire. He yelled up to me that he needed Go-boy.
One of the girls was wearing big sunglasses, and they both looked college age and full of confidence and self-respect.
Go came out of the kitchen, and the girl without sunglasses smiled and said, “Hey, Go.” It was Valerie, his girlfriend. She was sitting in the driver’s seat, holding both hands at twelve o’clock on the steering wheel.
“I have . . . Wait,” Go said, and disappeared.
Mr. Larsen put Go-boy’s waders on. Go came from the sleeping tent with the ulu. He walked to the edge of the water, leaned over the bow of the boat, and handed the ulu to Valerie.
“For me?” she asked.
“I need you in the river,” Mr. Larsen said to Go.
The girl with Valerie said the ulu was the coolest ever.
Go and Mr. Larsen went stomping through the river, carrying baby-food jars labeled with strips of masking tape. I watched from the tower. They were taking samples from the deep water and samples from the shallow water, talking and even joking around. Go-boy snuck another look at Valerie as she was examining the ulu, reading the inscription.
I climbed down from the tower and said hey to the girls. Near the boat’s motor was an old cooler with no lid. Inside were three fresh salmon, and patches of blood were smeared along the walls. Low clouds had moved in above us. For a moment the water looked black. Down the shoreline, evergreens were tipped out over the river, suspended in that position, still alive, waiting to fall.
The other girl said to me, “How you like it here in Unk?” She was wearing those goggle sunglasses, and her black hair was pulled back. They both wore jeans and zip-up hoodies, just like girls back in LA.
“Fine,” I said. “My mom’s an Ayupak. We just moved up from California.”
“For real,” she said and smiled. “We’re cousins, you and me.”
Valerie shot another look at Go-boy as he came out of the river. She was holding the ulu, testing the sharp edge against her fingertips. She looked ready to use it, but Go wasn’t catching her glances.
I asked her how he’d gotten the nickname “Go-boy.”
“His name’s Joe, but he couldn’t pronounce j’s very good when he was little,” Valerie said. “So he couldn’t say his name. He said, ‘Go.’ ”
From the kitchen tent Go-boy yelled to me. I turned and told him to wait, but the girls were already talking about something else, and all I could think to do was leave.
Mr. Larsen was in the kitchen, reading through our fish counts. He said the numbers for kings seemed way too low. He said he’d counted more fish from his boat in five minutes than the logs had recorded in three days. He was exaggerating. The tin can of peanuts was still spilled under the table, and the salty smell hung in the air. Go-boy gave me a nervous nod. The yellow air had been heated by the sun. It was dense and still.
Mr. Larsen sat in front of us with the fish logs — notebook paper inked blue and black. Go sat next to me on one side of a small card table. He was rubbing the top of his forearm, smearing the part of the tattoo that the river hadn’t blurred. I was peeling back part of the table’s vinyl covering. Next to the rip, someone had written, bored. Mr. Larsen stared at the pages in front of him, then looked at me and said the river was full of fish, and yet some of the shifts had recorded next to nothing. It was affecting the total count, which the fish-and-game wardens needed to be accurate in order to open and close the commercial-fishing season correctly. Mr. Larsen said we were supposed to sign our names on each log. He kept looking at me and asked, “And how can there be maluksuks already?”
“I lied!” Go said. “I wrote in guesses. I falsified the counts.”
Go-boy talked fast and loud. He talked about late shifts and exhaustion. I was confused. I didn’t think there was any way he should’ve been covering for me — not after I’d skipped a shift.
I said, “There’s maluksuks already.”
Mr. Larsen didn’t respond. He was squinting at Go-boy.
I knew the boss was talking about my counts, and Go knew he was talking about my counts. It was obvious I didn’t know how to count fish. But since neither of us had signed our logs, Mr. Larsen didn’t have proof. When Go-boy had trained me, he’d said he didn’t believe in each of us writing his name on the fish logs, because he thought we should be accountable as a team, not as individuals.
“It was just a mistake,” I said to our boss.
Mr. Larsen held his squinted eyes on Go-boy, almost smirking in disbelief.
Go-boy told him he had been falling asleep and waking up and just writing in numbers. Mr. Larsen didn’t buy it, and I didn’t buy it either: Go wouldn’t fall asleep, and if he did lie about the counts, it would only be because he was penning notebooks full of spiritual theories, or carving or painting something for Valerie. But even that was a stretch. I’d never once seen Go try to shave any time from his work. He held himself to a higher standard than most. Go-boy would let the whole world stroll into heaven for free but make himself pay full price.
I looked at the pages in front of Mr. Larsen. The shifts were dated two and three days ago. They were my shifts — blue ink, in my own handwriting.
“It’s my fault,” Go-boy said. “I lied.”
© Cole Thompson
After those kids busted Kid Cab’s ride, suspicious cops filled out reports, and tow trucks hauled off the stolen SUV and the smashed Cadillac. Later that night we called up a friend, Chunky — a kid too nice to run with gangs but cool with us — and we met him at the valet parking garage where he worked. Chunky took care of cars for the late-night crowds who filled the clubs and restaurants. We’d heard those Eighteenth Street fools were at a party over on Booth Street, so we slipped Chunky forty dollars, and he pointed us toward a big-ass, dual-cab pickup. He said it belonged to a stripper who wouldn’t miss the truck until three or four in the morning.
Kid Cab drove, because he always drove. Kid Cab drove reckless. We laughed when we turned on the CD player and heard some heavy metal. We hollered at girls. And when we came up on the block where the party was, Kid pulled out his .22 pistol and just started banging off shots, pocking the stucco between fleeing partygoers.
What we should’ve done was driven off and had some more fun with the truck before we returned it. Instead Kid Cab turned around and drove us back past the party, hoping the crew who’d busted his car would be out on the front lawn. They were. But this time they came at us hard, firing shots from two or three different guns. Our truck took a couple of bullets to the rear fender. Kid got us gone quick, but a minute later the Eighteenth Street crew had caught up, and a full-on chase started. We ran red lights on West First. Kid tried losing them in parking lots. It was real cops-and-robbers shit, except it was robbers and robbers. And it was then, during the high-speed chase, that I wondered what the hell we were doing. This was all because of me talking to a girl at a mall.
Two gunshots cracked the driver’s-side door with a denting sound. That girl Lily was next to us, gun in hand, elbow in the open window, that same mean smile on her face, that same mean laugh. Kid Cab ran the truck down a side road, stopped hard, started screaming. His thigh was all blood.
Sometime later we ditched the truck, and Kid’s sister picked him up and drove him to the hospital. Kid Cab told the police he was at a party over on Booth Street when a big white truck drove by, shooting up the place, and he got hit in the thigh.
Kid spent a week in the hospital. His thigh ballooned to the size of a pumpkin, purple and black, and they had to pump him full of morphine to keep him from weeping like a pussy. I had thought a leg wound would be nothing, but it was weeks before Kid was back to normal. And with no medical insurance, Kid’s mom was stuck with a stack of hospital bills, the payments scheduled out over a decade, all because of some stupid conversation with a girl.
Mr. Larsen told me to leave, to climb the tower so he could talk to Go in private. “And count accurately,” he said.
When I went outside, Valerie had already cut up two of the fresh salmon from the cooler with Go-boy’s ulu. She was working on the last fish. A square of burlap was stretched across the picnic table, soaked with dark blood. The sun was strong again, and it pierced the trees and glared off the water. Valerie first cut down the belly of the fish, unloading strings of guts. Next she hacked off the head, crunching through bones and gills. The noise was raw — the sound of fracture. I almost stopped watching. But what came next was different: She traced a tender slice along the spine. Her free hand lay flat along the scales of the salmon, feeling each move she made with the ulu. The blade slid between the pink flesh and the branches of white spine — a clean, inaudible slice. She peeled back each fillet, using the Eskimo knife as a gentle guide. When she was done, she held up two rectangular slices of bright red meat, still connected at the tail. There was twice as much fish in her hand than waste on the table. She went to the river and washed the meat clean of blood and loose scales. Then she rinsed the ulu, the burlap, and her hands. She left a cloud of blood in the clear water — dark red and drifting down the shoreline.
I watched the cloud float for about twenty feet, and then I saw that maluksuk again, now along our shore. The cloud of blood overtook the dying fish, and all I could see was its top fin as it scraped its belly against the gravel.
I told the girls about Go and the fish counts.
“Araa!” my cousin said, “Larsen’s sure always bugging about stuff.”
I was hoping that, as we stood there, Go-boy was telling Mr. Larsen the real reason for the unrealistic fish counts: that I didn’t know how to count fish, that I didn’t try very hard, that I skipped out and made him work three shifts straight. I wanted to get caught, but I didn’t want to turn myself in. I wanted Go-boy to act like he knew me better than I knew myself, like when he’d signed me up for this job, after I first moved here.
“Is Go always like this?” I asked Valerie.
She didn’t answer, and neither did my cousin.
When Kid Cab’s stitches were removed and the scabs were all peeled off, he decided it was time to pay back that girl who had shot him. I felt like he should have dropped the whole thing, but this was only a month before I was moving to Alaska, and I still needed to blend in and ride along with my friends so they didn’t get suspicious. Unspoken doubts about each other’s loyalties were always with us. Besides, I was still running by the rules of the game: never snitch; never give in; and never, ever feel sorry for the shit that happens to people who are in the game by their own choice.
We found the girl walking home from her job at Carlos’s Market — found her so easily it made me think that Kid had been planning this for a while. She looked harmless in her work outfit: blue slacks, yellow apron. I figured she worked in the bakery or the deli. I wondered if she really was a gangbanger or if it was all a big mistake. It had been over a month since she’d shot Kid. She looked like she was trying to do right. And maybe she was; maybe we all guessed that she had quit the gang. But we grabbed her and locked her in the trunk anyway.
At Chunky’s valet lot we parked in a corner of the basement level. The girl was an animal, and it took five of us to restrain her. Kid Cab lowered the tailgate of a small pickup. We dragged her into the truck bed, where each of us knelt alongside her, pinning her arms and legs. Kid ordered every move.
Before he started in with the button of her jeans, I wondered what would happen if I let her hand slip free by accident, if maybe she would gouge Kid’s eyes out with her nails, scratch the mania from his face, and free her other arm so she could punch and kick her way out of the trap and into the possibility that she wouldn’t be raped, into the possibility that someone, maybe a parking-lot maintenance man, would notice suspicious activity.
Then there came a point, when the girl was pinned in the back of some stranger’s pickup and Kid Cab was forcing her jeans and panties off, that everyone’s mood switched. Before that there had been some laughter at the shit the girl was screaming. There had been the occasional joke about sexual performance. Sick stuff, of course. But when Kid started in on her panties, everyone’s jaw tensed, and we all got quiet. We were all under each other’s microscopes. The girl stopped screaming. The air was dead, like we were sealed in a bag, and the only sounds were our breathing and the girl struggling, and we all watched each other, waiting for someone to fail. Waiting for the weak one to give in first.
The girl started screaming again, and it was then that I hit her in the head. Maybe I did it to make her stop. Or maybe I did it because I thought it would be less painful for her if she were unconscious. Or maybe I was mad at the whole game — the never-ending cycle of attacks and retaliations. I hit her in the temple, and her shouting stopped, and her eyes closed, and her head tipped to the side. For a second I thought she’d actually gone unconscious. But instead of nodding off, the girl being raped started to cry.
Valerie told Go-boy to call her later. “OK?”
He didn’t answer.
The girls got in the boat, and Mr. Larsen pushed off. Valerie still held the ulu. After she’d cleaned it in the river, it looked new again, almost too bright in her dark fingers. Mr. Larsen fired up the motor and spun the boat downriver, back to town.
Go-boy didn’t wave or nod or say anything. He was standing on the shore, shoulders slumped. Without looking at me, he turned and walked toward the picnic table, stopped halfway there, and sat down on the embankment between patches of crab grass.
“He’s filing an offense,” Go-boy said.
His forehead creased near his nose. He was biting his lower lip, almost chewing. He said, “It’s actually a misdemeanor. It’s against the law to lie about fish counts.”
“So you’re in real trouble?”
He said, “We both are.”
I wasn’t sure what to do. I thought about asking Go why he’d taken the blame, why he hadn’t turned me in, why he felt so responsible for me. I wanted to ask him if he really did lie about his counts, but I already knew the answer.
After a couple of minutes I headed for the tower to finish my shift. Maybe at noon I’d grab a sandwich and start a second shift, give Go some time off for covering for me. When I was halfway up, Go said, “It’s easier for you not to care.”
It seemed like he was about to say something mean or sharp, but he said, “You’re not from here. This isn’t your home. You’re leaving.”
I thought about telling him that I might not go back to California, that maybe it wouldn’t pan out after all. I thought about telling him this not because I believed it but because it might have made him feel better.
I said, “What if I do stay here? Will you still want me on your shift?”
“Man, you won’t stay.”
“But what if I do? What if I stay in Unalakleet?”
For weeks I daydreamed different scenarios about that night in the parking lot. In one I convinced Kid Cab to give up, to just dump her in a random car trunk as a joke. In another I stopped it all. I beat up everyone — my friends, even Chunky when he tried getting in my way. And in another daydream the girl was laughing back at us while being raped, laughing the way she’d laughed when she’d shot Kid Cab, mocking him and all of us, mocking me.
One time I had a real dream about it. I saw the girl being raped, only instead of Kid, it was me on top of her. I was watching myself. At first I saw everything from a bird’s-eye view. Then I was next to the girl, and I knew I was raping her. I noticed how ugly I looked when I was angry. It was disgusting and embarrassingly ugly. A weak ugly. A fake ugly. And each time I tried to reach out and shove myself off the girl, I couldn’t. When I walked away, I couldn’t get anywhere, either. I turned to see if all my friends were still watching me with the girl. They were. Then I looked to see if my face was any less ugly. It wasn’t.
The fish were running strong, wiggling past the plastic, getting in little fights with other fish for sperming territory. I wanted to count them so Go wouldn’t get in any more trouble, but I couldn’t tell which ones were kings and which ones were chums. I just blurred my vision and wondered which direction California was.
Go-boy had walked back into the river, his scrub brush in his hand. He went all the way to the far shore, his back to me. The water was up to Go’s waist. With the brush he cleaned the white plastic, working his way back across the river, inching in my direction.
Go-boy stopped scrubbing and looked downstream, taking a break. The tarp didn’t look any cleaner. The water wrinkled around his hips as he leaned into the current. He held the scrub brush above his head, resting it on his hair. His forearm was completely clean where the ink tattoo had been. Go was wide-eyed, like he still couldn’t believe what he had just done, even though it was what he always did, and what he always would do.
Upstream, about fifteen feet from him, I saw the maluksuk I had swung at earlier. I could tell it was the same one by how huge it was. It swam slow past the spawning fish and right toward Go-boy. The thing was an easy five feet long, maybe six, and I could see its greenish moldy skin and its top fin cutting the water, creating its own small wake. And I was sure it was going to swim right into Go-boy.
I was about to make a mark under maluksuk when something in me switched. I wanted the maluksuk gone. And, more than anything else, I didn’t want it near Go-boy. I dropped my blue pen and jumped out of my seat. I was on the ladder, climbing down from the tower. Then I was on the riverbank, running toward the water with the scrub brush high above my head to swing at the fish. I splashed in but stumbled before I could get to Go. I fell face first.
For a moment I was on my knees underwater with my eyes shut. The river was ice-cold, and it made my muscles feel thick and lethargic. I was numb. I couldn’t sense my clothes or the current. I didn’t hear anything or feel the gravel bottom. For a moment I stayed underwater like that. Then I opened my eyes. Everything was glassy and brilliant green and every other color. I began to float with the current. I saw the white tarp beneath me. I saw the spawning fish in every direction. I even saw Go-boy’s legs, bobbing along the tarp toward me. But for the moment that I was submerged in the river I couldn’t see the maluksuk. It wasn’t at the surface or with the spawning males or against either shoreline. It wasn’t anywhere. So I stayed under even longer, watching and wondering if maybe I had scared some life back into that half-dead fish.
A slightly different version of this story will appear in Mattox Roesch’s novel Sometimes We’re Always Real Same-Same, which will be published this month by Unbridled Books.