Last day of the salmon season, as I unzipped the bellies of sockeyes that splashed headless onto the belt and Mandy pulled the blood-orange sacs of roe from the entrails of the females and released them into the stream of saltwater that would carry them to the egg house for brining, packaging, and export to Tokyo, I told her I was in love with her.
It was 1982, and after two years of college I’d decided there were better ways to learn what a life was good for. The processing plant was suspended over the ocean on a pier, and from the seaplanes that had flown the crew in from Kodiak, you could see that it was an outpost, surrounded on three sides by water and with neither roads nor trails leading to or from it. On an elevated platform to our left, the butcher line foreman Berto fed fish by the gills into the whirring circular saw, to our right the scrapers and slimers sang Filipino pop songs to one another, swooning over every corazón, and at the end of the line the Toyo Suisan quality control team inspected the dressed fish, sending only Premium and Grade A to the Cryovac machines for flash-freezing and Japanese plates and palates and Grades B, C, and worse to the cookers for distribution to grocers across America. Some days every other fish was trash, buboed dog salmon with rib bones protruding, pink salmon soft as pudding, and Mandy and I swore so often we’d never eat fish from a can it had become our mantra.
“How can you be in love with someone who’s had five abortions?” she said, and I told her that from God’s perspective our actions cancelled each other out. I prodded a pair of egg sacs from a fish I’d opened, making them easier for her to remove, and she cradled them gently, not wanting to rupture membranes holding thousands upon thousands of lives that would never be, each a tiny orb of imperial topaz that would melt upon the tongue.
To defray the cost of hitchhiking to Alaska, I explained, I’d sold my sperm to an artificial insemination clinic in Minneapolis and, by my reckoning, impregnated no fewer than five mothers-to-be who would, I hoped, give birth to five children or more. I knew how ghastly she felt about each D&C, the heartsickness, the chronic fatigue, the winged babies that came to her in dreams. Standing in place all summer with only time to kill, we’d become each other’s confidant and confessor.
She turned to me, and to a nut-brown lock that had fallen outside the hood of her yellow parka clung a piece of swim bladder. “I love you, but I’m not in love with
you, Howard. We’ve had this conversation before.”
We had, but this time I said, “A lover shouldn’t have to be a father first.”
Berto hollered from the head saw, “Last fish!” holding one up like a trophy,
and as it dropped onto the belt, it misted my cheek, just like all the others before it, starting in June. Down the line the scrapers and slimers cheered. Most would pick fruit from orchards in Washington and Oregon as they migrated back to homes in Stockton, where they’d winter on their earnings, but there was nowhere we had to be.
With the others we squeegeed the floor and wiped down the belt. “All I’m saying,” I said as we hosed each other off, “is maybe you should give childless men a chance.”
“Didn’t you just tell me you might have five?”
“That’s right,” I said. “Three more than Robert.”
“Don’t be an asshole.”
Overalls and parkas dripping from hooks, I picked the piece of swim bladder from her hair and dropped it into a drain that opened to the sea. “With me your slate is clean.”
Robert lived on Maui with his wife and kids in a home inspired by a villa on the Isle of Crete. She’d been the nanny until his wife discovered them naked in the Jacuzzi, having just made love and reading Richard Brautigan to each other. After that, she stayed in an apartment he kept for her in Kahului and spent two weeks of every month with him in the Kula Forest Reserve, AK-47s strapped to their backs to protect a hectare of weed. There they slept in a tent during the day and worked through the night, fertilizing topsoil, pinching meristems, harvesting bud and drying it in a curing cellar built with a Bobcat and twelve pallets of concrete blocks lowered by helicopter under cover of darkness.
“You’re only in love me because you think I put out. That’s what those five abortions mean to you.”
“They aren’t the only thing,” I said.
“But the main one. Three months on the butcher line, I know you better than you know yourself.”
“And I you,” I said.
She laughed and wagged her head. “If you did, you’d be running from me as fast as your legs could carry you.”
Eight o’clock, we were walking past the machine shop to stare at the sea at twilight one last time.
“I’m not having another one.”
“We’ll use birth control.”
“I want a child so badly.”
“Then we won’t.”
“I’m not going back to him. Not yet. He’s met none of my conditions.”
Over a summer of mail calls, she’d received exactly two postcards.
“Still not divorced?”
“I doubt he’s even filed for it.”
“I know, right?”
“Then the future’s ours,” I proclaimed.
“Must you sound so triumphant about it?”
I was twenty-one, Mandy twenty-six, and though I wasn’t her first choice, we
held each other on a stack of seining nets in need of mending as a family of orca circled Lazy Bay in the moonlight, drawn to cannery scraps dumped from hundred-gallon totes into the sea.
Daniel Mueller is author of two collections of short fiction, How Animals Mate (Overlook Press 1999), winner of the Sewanee Fiction Prize, and Nights I Dreamed of Hubert Humphrey (Outpost 19 Books 2013). His work has appeared in numerous first-rate journals and magazines, including b(OINK), Iowa Review, Missouri Review, Prairie Schooner, Cincinnati Review, Cutbank, Booth, Solstice, Gargoyle, Free State Review, Joyland, Story Quarterly, Chicago Quarterly Review, Manzano Mountain Review, Mississippi Review, Story, Playboy and elsewhere.