China Harry’s Fish Buyer by Dave Barret

Chapter Twelve of “Gone Alaska”

    China Harry’s Fish Buyer

It was near midnight before Swanson announced we were done fishing that first day on the Esther Island grounds.

     The day had been a success: the biggest single-day catch we’d had yet.  The annual Esther Island King Salmon Run had occurred on the day predicted.  Our ice holds had become so filled that the last dozen salmon had to be left in the cooler above deck until we arrived at tonight’s fish-buyer.  Yet, as I staggered out of my four by three by two foot sunken box at the rear of the Western World, I couldn’t help feel indifferent towards it all.  Though I’d caught, cleaned and packed each one of these fish with my own hands, there had been something lacking in the way I’d gone about doing this.

      The afternoon run had gone smooth enough.  After the chaotic episodes of that morning, the numbing routine of the drag had been something of a comfort.  The act of bashing salmon brains had been a kind of release.  I’d been knocking them cold with one blow most the day, as opposed to the several clubbings it usually took. But, by late afternoon, even landing and killing the catch had lost its thrill.  By that point, the numbers of fish had begun to take their toll.  Like too much of a good thing, the salmon kept coming in without let-up.  One after another . . . until catching them became as engaging as drawing laundry from a clothesline.  Instead of anticipating the possibility of a star forty-pounder on the end of a tag-line, I found myself dreading the probability there was one.

     We were entering a small sheltered bay a few miles north of Esther Island.  After spending most the day on a pitching, rolling ocean, it was a comfort to see cliffs and mountains—actual land!—rising on three sides of us.  The sun had ducked behind the frozen peaks of Mt. Saint Elias only moments ago.  There was still enough light out that I could see a gang of sea otters perched atop a large floating log towards shore.  The otters had stopped their clowning to watch us drift by.

     Swanson called me to the wheel.

     “How’s the hand?” Swanson asked.

     I took my post at the wheel.

      “Stiff,” I said, showing how difficult it was to make a fist with my left hand.  “It keeps getting stiffer.  Like I got arthritis in it.”

     I remembered the surprise and shock I’d felt just a few hours ago when I’d unknowingly grabbed a Ling Cod around the gills while removing a troublesome hook.  The moment I’d performed this blunder poison had been injected into my palm from the spines hidden beneath the Ling Cod’s gills.  I could still feel the sting from the red spot in the middle of my palm where the spines had first pricked me.

     “Arthritis, huh?” Swanson grinned.  “Ah, well!”  He slapped me on the back.  “Stiffness don’t last long anyway.  Should be out come tomorrow morning.  Best thing you can do now is keep it moving.  Work it out.”

     I thought Swanson had winked at me, but couldn’t be sure.

     On the backside of this bay was a long flat-bottomed fish-buying scow we were to sell today’s catch.  I could read HARRY’S FISH-BUYER on a large red and white hand-painted sign on the scow’s rooftop.  Another trawler was pulled alongside the fish-buyer, preparing to leave.  The deckhand on this vessel had just untied his trawler and was recoiling the stay line on his back deck.  He was exchanging goodbyes with a little man smoking a pipe on the scow’s front porch.  I figured this man was the proprietor because of the excessive manner in which he nodded his head in agreement with what the other fellow was saying.  How many times had I seen my own father back home in Couer d’ Alene nod to customers at the hardware store in just such a manner!

     “Heads up!” Swanson shouted—so I jerked the wheel way over the right in my astonishment.  “Come on.  Straighten her out.  Let her down a gear.  See if we can’t coast in from here out. . .”

      Eventually, I got us back on course.  I was slaphappy at the wheel: smiling—even laughing—at the curt remarks Swanson made towards me.  I shook my head several times to get some of the tiredness out.  I felt oddly detached from what I was doing at the wheel.  It was as though I was translucent: my mind and body so worn out from work and lack of rest that the steering wheel felt like a toy under my work-numbed hands.  Maybe coffee would help?  But I’d already drunk so much I was beginning to wonder if hadn’t replaced the blood in my veins.

     And like the butt of a mercilessly repeated bad joke, Swanson was right on cue offering more NO-DOZE tablets:

     “Ah, come on,” Swanson said.  “It’ll give you a little pick-up.”

     Swanson dry-gulped two of the tablets himself.

      “Ah, yes!” he continued.  “That’s the ticket! Go ahead.  You’ll be thanking me by the time we’re through unloading that shit load out back.”

     Unload!  I thought.  Somehow, I’d imagined there’d be a crew to unload the catch for us like there had been in Pelican.

     “Yeah. . .” Swanson said, winking this time for sure.  “Just you and me and that big catch. . .”

     I took the caffeine tablets.

     The proprietor was through with his goodbyes to the other fisherman now.  He ducked through the large sliding door of the fish-buyer, then re-emerged wearing a yellow rain jacket and stuffing a fresh pinch of tobacco into his long wooden pipe.  He smiled and waved us forward, then commenced to lighting his pipe by running a match up the zipper of his rain jacket.

     “All right,” I heard Swanson call from somewhere on deck.  “Put her back in gear and creep up with her real soft.  When she gets alongside the scow slide her in reverse.  I’ll jump boat and signal you from the scow when to cut her off.  She’s all mine after that.”

     China Harry.

     We were unloading the catch Chinese Fire Drill style: I down in the holds tossing the ice-caked salmon up to Swanson on deck. . .who in turn tossed it to China Harry onboard the scow. . .who stacked them neatly in a roll-away cart.

     I’d forgotten the nickname Swanson had ascribed to the fish-buyer until Swanson referred to him as such while introducing us.

     “This here’s China Harry,” Swanson said.

     “How do you do, Adam?” said China Harry.

     “Fine.  Thanks,” I answered.

     I’d been briefed about China Harry.

     “We call him China Harry,” Swanson had explained.  “’Cuz he looks and acts like one of them Chinamen you see on TV and at the movies.  You know the type.  Always smiling and bobbing, bobbing and smiling.  Yes, sir.  No, sir.  Never talks back.  Lucky if you get two words out of him.  That sorta thing.”

     “Truth is,” Swanson had confessed.  “China Harry ain’t more Chinese than you or I.  He’s Tlingit—like Miss Sue Ann Bonnet.  Rumor has it he’s just as much a sucker for all that hocus-pocus horseshit as Sue Ann!  Lotta guys think he’s an old American Indian Movement activist from the 60’s.  They boycott his buyer ‘cuz of it. . .”

     “. . . but not me.  I don’t judge a man by the color of the flag he flies.  Besides, if you really want to hear it, China Harry’s just an old flake.  A fag.  ‘Course now that’s my opinion.  Thing is when it gets right down to it China Harry’s as good a man as any other.  Never cheats a fisherman at the scales.  Doesn’t give us a lot of lip like a lotta these new fish-buyers from the States do.  Always gives top dollar for a clean catch.  And that’s saying something out here, boy!  Believe me, that’s saying something.”

     China Harry was all and more than Swanson had forewarned.  He was a strangely effeminate little man.  His features were plainly Indian: the high, rather delicate cheekbones, the blunt nose, broad mouth and fleshy skin.  And his expressions, gestures, facial posturing were, indeed, of the Chinese stereotype he was trying to emulate.  If China Harry was a sign he would have read EXCUSE ME MAY I HELP YOU.  He was the last type of man I expected to encounter in so remote a part of the planet as this.

     Yet, in a funny way Swanson had failed to mention, there was also something similar about China Harry’s appearance to that of Philip Swanson’s.  Both were small, ageless looking men; both had the same beady set of eyes; and, most essentially, both had that puppet-like grotesqueness about their character: Swanson because of his crippled shoulder, China Harry because of his absurd efforts to appear an absurd Chinese stereotype.   They were flipsides of the same coin: Swanson the grotesque of the hard masculine man and China Harry that of the soft feminine one.  Yet this softness of China Harry’s was deceiving.  I learned this after shaking hands with the man and then, a few minutes later, observing how these same spongy soft hands had proved so apt at handling the catch.

     Tossing the last King salmon up to Swanson, I climbed out of the holds, and helped him and China Harry wheel the rollaway inside the fish-buyer.

     The chrome-plated scales were set in the middle of the large rectangular room.  There were three actual scales.  They reminded me of the ones in the produce section of the IGA store in Couer d’ Alene that my mother had scolded me and my brothers and sisters for pulling on when we were children.

     “China Harry,” Swanson said, as the first three salmon were laid on the scales.  “You sure you haven’t rigged this scale?  This one on the right looks a little off center to me.”  Swanson nudged me with an elbow.  “You wouldn’t be trying to pull a fast one on a couple of dumb, tired fishermen, would ‘ya?”

     China Harry smiled slyly back, his tobacco-stained teeth clenched down on the stem of his pipe.  He took his eyes away from the scales only to punch numbers on his adding machine.  He said nothing.

     “That’s what I thought!” Swanson joked, nudging me again.

     While Swanson and China Harry discussed the current market price for King and Coho salmon, I wandered to a far corner of the room where two large shelves of books reached towards the ceiling.  Beside the books was a padded rocking chair . . . beside the chair, a thermos of coffee and clean coffee mugs.

     There was a hand-written sign on the wall that read: THESE BOOKS ARE NOT FOR SALE . . . BUT FEEL FREE TO BROWSE IF YOU MUST.  I smiled at China Harry’s use of the phrase IF YOU MUST.

     There was a smattering of Louis L’Armour and Zane Grey westerns, some Tom Clancy and Ken Follet spy thrillers, but most of the books were of scholarly-type.  I’d read or heard of some of the titles: RICHARD II by Shakespeare . . . ORIGIN OF THE SPECIES and THE DESCENT OF MAN by Darwin.  But then there were others I hadn’t heard of: THE GOLDEN BOUGH by Sir James Frazier. . .DECLINE OF THE WEST by Oswald Spengler. . .ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE. . .WAITING FOR GODOT. . .THE TIBETAN BOOK OF THE DEAD.  There were two full rows of Indian histories: NOW THAT THE BUFFALO’S GONE . . . BLACK ELK SPEAKS . . . BURY MY HEART AT WOUNDED KNEE.  Half the names of the funny foreign authors I couldn’t even pronounce: like THE TECHNOLOGICAL SOCIETY and PROPAGANDA: THE FORMATION OF MEN’S ATTITUDES by Jacques Ellul.  I laughed at the way my tongue kept tripping over the last name of this author.

     “Do you like books?” China Harry asked.

     “Yes,” I said, glancing back at the shelves.  “The little that I’ve read.”

     Actually, I love books and had declared English as my major at U of Idaho that coming fall.  But I was feeling a bit intimidated by the selections I saw on China Harry’s shelves.

     “Have you read all these yourself?” I asked.

     “Ninety-nine percent of them,” China Harry said, laying three new salmon on the scales.  “It gets very lonely here.  It’s nice to be able to read about faraway places and other peoples and other worlds.  Don’t you think so?”

      “No frigate like a book!” I said.

      “Oh!  Very good!” China Harry said.  “Emily Dickinson. . .”

     Then I said something that made China Harry stop smiling—for a moment.  Swanson had returned to the Western World for some reason, and I took advantage of the opportunity.

     “Harry,” I said.  “If the fishing’s really as bad as some people say it’s getting . . . how come we keep catching so many fish?”

     I was fully aware of the bluntness of my question.  But Swanson might return at any moment.

     China Harry hesitated, puffing on his pipe several times.  Then, in one word, he answered:

     “Canada.”

     My mind flashbacked to the conversation between the three fishermen in line behind me at the Elfin Grocer.  I remembered something about tolls and Mounties and dams on the Columbia River and no dams on the Fraser River.

     “You’re kidding!” I said.  “These are Fraser River salmon?”

     China Harry nodded.

     “Son of a bitch!” I said.  I felt like someone who has been searching for something only to find it right beneath his or her nose.  “That’s how we keep our numbers high—and beat the regulators!  By intercepting Canadian salmon—“

     “And the Canadians do the same!” China Harry replied.  “Both sides are fighting over what’s left in the barrel.  When this resource is exhausted, we’ll be fighting over another as yet un-named one!  It’s the human condition.  It’s how we are as a species.”

     I was overwhelmed.  All this . . . and China Harry with his same poker-face . . . was marking another fish’s weight down on his note pad.

     “But Harry. . .” I said.  “How can you know all this and still be part of it?”

     I realized the brashness of my question—not to mention its hypocritical nature—after the fact.  When I began to apologize, China Harry only smiled and said:

     “Remember, Adam . . . there are always three shells in a shell game.”

     Just then Swanson came clomping back on the scow, fooling with his fly.  When he saw me standing gape-mouthed by the books, he motioned me over.

     “What’s going on here?” Swanson joked.  “I expect you to keep an eye on the Chinaman while I’m away.  No telling what China Harry’s capable of!”

     We were towards the end of the catch now.  There was a little chute behind the scales leading down to the holds beneath the floor.  China Harry grabbed the three salmon he’d just weighed under the gills and sent them headfirst down the chute.  I wondered if Swanson had eavesdropped on our conversation.  I was more confused now than ever.  What had China Harry meant by three shells in a shell game?  Was he implying that the First Nations could regain control of their old salmon grounds after the U.S. and Canada were busy duking it out over what was left of the salmon pie?  And what if the First Nations could pull off this shell game?   What would they alone be able to do to save the salmon?

     The room was strangely quiet.  There was only the familiar pattern of the scale’s squeaking as new salmon were laid on them, then the sound of digits being punched  out on the adding machine, then the salmon being shot down the chute to the holds below.  Outside, the wind had stopped blowing and it was eerily still.  There was only the tinkled of bilge water being pumped out of the Western World’s bulwarks.

     To break the monotony—as well as cover-up the sentiments of my conversation with China Harry (in case Swanson HAD been eavesdropping)—I cleared my throat and joked:

     “Guess we pulled in quite a haul today—hey, Phil?”

     “Yeah. . .”Swanson said, after a pause.  “I suppose you could say that.”

     China Harry was having difficulty laying a larger-sized King on the scale properly.  Swanson had to reach over and hold the salmon by the tail while China Harry took the reading.

     “Oh, yeah,” I continued—since Swanson had nothing else to say.  “I’ve been meaning to ask what kind of percentage of the catch I’m getting.  I would have brought it up sooner—“

     “Hmm—“I heard Swanson grunt.

     Swanson seemed irritated about something.  I wasn’t sure if it was something I’d said or if it was the seeming trouble he and China Harry were having with another large salmon.

     “Excuse me,” I said.  “I suppose we can talk about this later—“

     “No-no,” Swanson interrupted, free to address me now that this salmon had been weighed.  “Now’s as good a time as any.  Funny we haven’t gotten round to it sooner.  Hmm, now?  Let’s see. . .”

     I reached over and held the tail of a large Coho while Swanson mulled over figures both aloud and in his head.

     “Yes. . .” China Harry said, almost to himself.  “You are new out here.”

     “How can you tell?” I said, trying to be a good sport.

     Smiling pleasantly, China Harry continued:

     “Well, among other things, by the way this catch has been cleaned.”

      “What?” I said, feeling betrayed.

      China Harry opened the slit belly of the salmon in his hands and ran one of his fingers along a section of meat I had cut against the grain on.  “But,” he finished, “not damaged so much as to devalue THIS fish.”

     I smiled back weakly.

     China Harry was definitely a player.

     “Harry?” Swanson asked.  “What’s the going price on Coho’s this week?”

     “Three twenty-five a pound, Philip.”

     “And Kings?”

     “Four-ten.”

     “Thanks,” said Swanson.

      At last, Swanson turned to me and concluded:

      “Ten percent of the catch is the going rate.  Including today—and those three good days we had before Pelican—I figure we’ve grossed somewhere in the neighborhood of three-thousand by this point.  Ten percent of three thousand is three hundred.  Roughly, three hundred dollars.”

     “Three hundred dollars?” I repeated.  I wondered if Swanson meant three-hundred for today and those three good days before Pelican exclusively.

     “Is that three hundred for the entire season?”

     “Yeah,” Swanson said.  “Unless,” he continued, smiling towards China Harry.  “Unless the Chinaman wants to give us a bonus for bringing in such a pretty catch!

What ya’ say, Harry?  Handing out any bonuses today?”

     China Harry smiled and shook his head.

     Swanson laughed out loud.

     “Three hundred dollars?” I repeated again.  I began to figure out how much that came out to per hour after all I’d worked these last two and a half weeks.

     “Of course,” Swanson added, as though an afterthought.  “I will have knock off for expenses and such . . . you understand.”

     I stopped figuring and looked at Swanson.  It crossed my mind he might be joking.  I tried smiling at him.  He did not smile back.

     “Yeah.  Expenses. . .” Swanson said.  With a grunt, he explained:  “Do I look like the Governor of Alaska to you?”

     When I didn’t reply, just continued to stare back in disbelief, Swanson continued:

     “Well, now. I‘ll have to knock off at least fifty food, another fifty for gear lost . . . little things. . like that brand new scrub brush you knocked overhead on opening day.  And then there was your fun at the Elbow Room and your little fling at Roxie’s. . .”  He winked devilishly at me.  “Heck!” Swanson concluded, grinning again.  “I guess that breaks us about even, don’t it?”

     I felt dizzy.  I couldn’t believe I was hearing this.  Even!  After all the work!  These long days!  No sleep!  It occurred to me that Swanson might even be screwing me over on the three-thousand dollar gross.  Intuitively, I knew the figure was more in the four thousand range.  But there was no way I could prove this.  I’d been so busy orienting myself to my new job and new surroundings that it had never occurred to me to keep any kind of record.  And, come to think of it, I’d never signed any kind of contract to work for Philip Swanson—never filled out a W-2 or passed along my social security number.  I was entirely beholden to Swanson’s judgment.  This seemed too terribly stupid to actually be happening!

     I turned towards China Harry, but his mask was firmly in place.  He’d finished weighing the last of the catch and was tapping out the bottom of his pipe. His wet red lips were puckered in a frown.  But I couldn’t tell if it was because of what he’d just witnessed or because of the trouble he was having cleaning the bowl of his pipe.

     “Even?” I said.  “How could that be?”

     There was a Styrofoam ice chest filled with packages of frozen herring at our feet.  Swanson was turning over one of these cellophane wrapped packages in his hands now.

     “Harry?” Swanson said, ignoring me. “These just come in today?”

     China Harry had cleared his pipe and was repacking the bowl with more of his cherry-flavored tobacco.

     “Yes,” China Harry said, lighting his pipe.  “Just this morning, Philip.  From Seattle.”

     “Seattle, huh?” Swanson said.  “All right, then.  I’ll talk six of these Puget Sound puppies.”

     China Harry punched out the cost of each herring packet individually.

     “Excuse me,” I said, stepping closer to Swanson.  “Excuse me.  I don’t understand.  I don’t get it.”

     “Goddamn it,” Swanson mumbled.  China Harry had handed him a clipboard with a bill of sale on it.  Swanson scribbled out his signature on the bottom line.  Then he tore out the carbon copy receipt of sale, folded it, and stuffed it in a breast pocket of his shirt.

     “Goddamn,” he repeated.  “I just told you why!  Expenses!”

     “Yeah. . .” I said.  “O.K.  But after all the hours I’ve worked—“

     “Hours?” Swanson interrupted.  “Hours, boy?  You are a green one, aren’t you?  Come on—get with it—man!  Everything’s based on percentages out here . . . like I been telling you since the start.  Percentages.  That’s why we work these long crazy hours.  I’m hoping things will pick up from here out.  If we can fill the holds in four hour’s time tomorrow—fine!  We’ll call it a day!  But if it takes until midnight, then we’ll be working till midnight.  That’s just the way things work out here.  Got to give up those old wage-slave ideas!”

     “And put my trust in you?”

     “That’s right,” said Swanson, unable to hold back a little smile.  “Put your trust in me.”

      Swanson paused to slide a pinch of chewing tobacco under his upper lip.  He offered me a pinch.  When I declined, he shook his head slowly and placed the lid in a rear pocket of his jeans.  After a long pause, he finished:

     “Now I wasn’t going to tell you this until the season ended . . . but . . . if things continue to work out . . . and you decide to stay on for sockeye season . . . I’ll be upping your percentage to 15%.  By that time I figure you’ll be worth the extra 5% to me.”

     Before I could respond, Swanson shuffled past me towards one of the open doors.

     Turning around, I saw that China Harry was already out of the porch in front of Swanson.  Both were waving hello as a new trawler, heavy with fish, came alongside the scow.

DB in Lisbon.jpg

Dave Barrett lives and writes out of Missoula, Montana. His fiction has appeared most recently in Potomac Review, Cowboy Jamboree and Midwestern Gothic. His story–EL PARADISIO–appears in the Spring 2018 issue of Quarter After Eight. He teaches writing at the Missoula College. His novel—GONE ALASKA—was accepted by Adelaide Books and will be published in August 2019.

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