By Jim LeCuyer
I’d been seining for salmon out of Ketchikan, Alaska, for an old time fisherman, Curly Anderson, a bald man from Bellingham, Washington. I’d helped him hang gear and had put in long hours as Curly’s cork man, but the whole season went sour. The mesh of his ancient seine was rotten, so every time we round-hauled a school of salmon, they broke through and escaped.
Curly swore at his crew and blamed us for every problem. I was thirty five and had some pride. I quit in disgust, got paid a couple hundred dollars, my share of what little we’d earned, and hired on with a local Tsimshian Indian who, unlike Curly, never swore, was a fine intelligent fellow, and had the latest gear and a beautiful boat he’d built himself.
He was also a great reader and knew more about Shakespeare’s plays and James Joyce’s Ulysses than I did, though I had a degree in English Literature. We had great conversations.
Unfortunately, he wasn’t the least bit interested in making money, just in furnishing a winter store of salmon to his tribe in Metlakatla. We made three sets, filled the hold with possibly two tons of nice fat king salmon, and gave them all to the chief in Metlakatla. I was paid ten dollars an hour for my week’s efforts, about three hundred dollars all in all. Not much money in a place where a cheap hamburger cost $15.
So I was nearly broke when I was dropped back in Ketchikan. I had no certain place to stay, and not enough money for a flight home to San Francisco. If I was lucky, I might find a cheap hotel room for the night, but that was unlikely since Ketchikan was stuffed with fishermen, many of whom had struck it rich that season.
It was August. Even so, the temperature could drop down to freezing at night. I made the only rational choice. I went into a nice warm Ketchikan saloon and ordered a beer. The saloon was filled with bearded men in sou’westers and hip boots and unwashed fishing gear; many of the men were dancing together to juke box music. Three heavy native women were eagerly sought after as partners by several men at once.
Before I could finish my beer, a fight broke out between white fishermen and Haida natives over the women. I ducked out before I got hit by a flying bottle. I didn’t even finish my beer, and I’d paid five dollars for it, too.
Outside, an enormous long-haired native stood swaying with his hip boot on the fat belly of an equally enormous, unconscious, white fisherman, a trophy.”Bring on more whites,” the native man shouted at me as I raced by. I was pretty fast and figured I could outrun him. When I got to the corner I looked back and saw the fight erupt out of the saloon, arms and legs and boots and fists flying, asses and elbows as they say.
I looked down at my feet and there, on the sidewalk, lay a mass of twenties and fifties, which I quickly scooped up. I ran with my “catch” and when I stopped to count up, it turned out to be 755 dollars. Astonishing. I went immediately to the airport and caught the next Air Alaska flight home.
I was commercially fishing and poor as a fried peanut, living in Marshall California on a dock over Tomales Bay in a laundry room shack—all that remained of the burned down Marshall Hotel. I’d got down to my last eight dollars, which, after some consideration, I gave to a ten-year-old boy passing by.
Later that day, I went to a tiny marina at Marconi Cove to visit the manager Joanie, a good friend of mine,. As I left her place, I stopped to make a call at the only public phone booth around to see if I could borrow a hundred bucks until herring season opened.
And there, stuffed under the big black phone, was a fat white envelope.
I opened it and found it full of hundred dollar bills, some three thousand dollars in all. A shock! An answer from Heaven!
Of course I thought, finders keepers. But then I thought, maybe these were the savings of some poor old lady trying to keep her home. I gave it to my friend Joanie and said, “Anyone comes for this, give it to them. But if no one comes around by tomorrow morning, we’ll share it.”
I thought about that money as I fell asleep. It would lift me out of poverty. In the morning I went back, and Joan said, “A local drug dealer came for it last night.”
My heart sank. “Did he leave me anything?” I was hoping for a reward, a hundred bucks or even fifty bucks. She handed me an envelope.
The note inside it read, “Good thing you turned this in, motherfucker. I’d have messed you up bad. J.C.”
J.C—short for Jesus Christ.
Jim LeCuyer is a board member of Poetry Flash, a retired commercial fisherman, and a former teacher of English and Creative Writing at San Francisco’s School of the Arts. His books include the short story anthology Threnody for Sturgeon, and a collection of poetry, A Brick for Offissa Pup.
Copyright Jim LeCuyer, 2016. All Rights Reserved.