THE LAST SALMON
She watched him from the window over the sink. The wind whipped his ponytail even as the rain tried to flatten it against his threadbare Levi jacket. Even wet, his hair was a bright gold rope beating on his back where it fell from beneath the dilapidated Cubs hat. She’d never seen the wind blow so hard and watching him stand, seemingly unconcerned, in such a maelstrom scared her in a way she didn’t understand.
His face was held in a frown of concentration as he studied the pile of scrap wood that had been accumulating from the odd jobs that he’d taken up and down this stretch of Oregon’s North Coast. She didn’t notice the long sigh that escaped her as he suddenly stooped and picked up a three-foot length of wood, tapered slightly from one end to the other. Even though they were each painfully aware of where the other was, he didn’t so much as glance at the window as he disappeared from her line of sight, toward the work shed out back by the river.
Turning from the window, she reached for the dish towel and wiped her eyes. She felt a moment’s panic when she considered that tomorrow was, indeed, Thanksgiving Day. She settled into her rocker by the woodstove and tried not to look at the phone.
Around back, he paused for a moment to watch the river. The wind, blasting out of the south, was pushing the surface of the water back upstream, like a flood tide. But he knew the tide was on its way out. This meant that the wind was blowing a pretty steady sixty, with gusts much higher than that. What a stupid time for an adventure. He cussed himself for his inability, sometimes, to find any middle ground at all.
The inside of the shed was calm. The rain beating on the roof was a friendly sound, but he knew that once the big front passed and the wind died some, the rain sound in here would be deafening. As it was, the wind was almost that way. He shuddered at the thought of what he was going to try, dicey at best even on a good day. Maybe this weather would be an ally instead. He snorted at the thought.
Clamping the piece of wood he’d chosen in the rust-pitted, but well-oiled vice, he rummaged for the eight-inch gutter spikes he knew he had. When he had them in hand, he picked up his framing hammer and commenced to work, grateful for something to do. When he was finished, he had what resembled a medieval mace, four of the spikes hammered at odd and forbidding angles through the thicker end of the wood.
On the way around the house to where his old 1964 Buick was parked, he willed himself not to look at any of the windows. He wanted no distraction from what he felt he had to do. Before tossing his new club into the trunk of the car, he swung it a few times and enjoyed a grim satisfaction in its heft and feel.
As the Buick turned south on 101, it was beginning to get dark. There was no traffic. The weather and tomorrow’s holiday had most everyone hunkered down inside, waiting it out, anticipating the Big Meal, or maybe basking in the warm glow of a tavern, knowing that there would be plenty of time of shrug off a hangover.
His hands tightened on the wheel. Damn Thanksgiving Dinner. He’d left her in the kitchen crying about Thanksgiving Dinner. It was her first Thanksgiving away from home and she couldn’t bear the thought of not having a feast, of not having anything. He knew that she felt cut off, disconsolate, and there was nothing he could say to change it. As he’d pulled on his boots, face darkening like the sky outside, she’d looked at him, brown eyes huge and wet. His edge had disappeared like a sandbar in a rising tide, but he’d pretended it was still there, sharp as an axe.
“Where are you going?”
“To get tomorrow’s dinner,” he’d said as he stepped through the door onto the rain-lashed porch. Somebody had to do something. It might as well be him.
He stopped at the Chevron station in Wheeler and blew his last eight bucks on gas. Turning back onto the highway, he accelerated slowly, fighting the wind and the driven rain.
After a couple miles, the road dropped into a twisty hollow that was protected from the wind. He knew it was there still, roaring over the top, and he knew he’d be back in it as soon as he climbed out of there and crossed the railroad tracks near the end of the jetty that guarded the leeward river bank through the trees to his right. The relative quiet was welcome.
He passed through Neahkahnie and Rockaway, the Buick running smoothly, a good old dog eager to be going anywhere. Garibaldi came and went. The full force of the wind hit him as the road skirted the hills that crashed down to the ocean at where the road crossed the railroad tracks again. He expected traffic in Tillamook, but it was a ghost town, lights awash, signs bent straight to the northeast. At the only stop light, he couldn’t tell if it was green or red because it was little more than a flag in the gale. He went right on through without stopping.
As he went past the paper mill at the south end of town it seemed to grow darker. It was right here, three weeks before, that things had started to fall. She’d been waiting in the car when he came out looking at the paper in his hand. Their eyes had met briefly through the windshield. When he’d settled into the seat she’d said:
“Get your head up! Something else will come along.”
He’d opened his mouth to say something, but her look had stopped him. His long sigh had been the only sound inside the car for the entire twenty-mile drive back up to Nehalem.
He almost missed his turn. The flashing yellow light at the Trask River junction wasn’t working. Maybe the power was out. All the better.
There were no lights, either, at the old blimp hangars that rose, unbelievably huge, out of the murk by the roadside, frightening somehow in their looming blackness. A fleet of loaded log trucks could park in either one of them and the place would still seem empty. For the first time, he noticed the knots in his stomach. He was about to break the law. He didn’t care much about the state side of it. It was his own that troubled him.
Before he rounded what he knew was the last bend, he turned off the headlights and proceeded at a creep, tires crunching gravel on the road that followed the Trask up into the mountains. Driving more by feel that sight, he nosed off into a turnout he knew was there, nestled against the cliff that ran along the high side of the road. He turned the car around, so that it was facing back the way he’d come. The wind was subdued up here, a distant howl. After he shut off the motor, the river became the dominant sound, eclipsing the rain that spattered against the convertible top and the windshield that was already beginning to fog.
He sat running it through his mind. Chances were excellent that no one would happen along, but he was still nervous, his heart hammering and his palms damp. It was cold and he shivered, cursing himself for not having bought a winter coat when he’d had the money. And that was part of it. The money. Before he’d met her, it had never seemed like it was all that important. He got by, somehow, working here and there. Maybe carpentry one day, digging a ditch the next, helping out somewhere, always making the rent, almost always on time. But somehow it had escaped, that feeling of being ready for anything, of knowing that his hands and his mind could provide a living. He knew it wasn’t a living his father approved of, but it was his living. It was good enough until whatever it was that he was going to really do became apparent and led him off on another trail.
But then he’d met her. Now it was no longer good enough. He didn’t know why. He just knew that it wasn’t.
He got out of the car and the rain hit him. It was welcome. He was steady as he opened the trunk and got the club.
When he rounded the corner in the road, he saw a solitary light in the distance that marked where the people part of the hatchery was. No power outage here. Nothing stirred except the river, the rain, the high distant wind, and the beating of his heart. He stopped at the edge of the river where it pooled below the fish weir at the edge of the concrete where the hatchery began. The water was higher than he’d seen it before but that made sense because of the storm. Even in the dark he could sense them there, hundreds of them, rolling and jostling one another in the black water.
Without hesitation he stepped into the current and waded in up to his hips. The water was icy and pulled at him, turning his balls into a fist tight against him. He stood rock still and waited, letting himself calm and become part of the river. Rain pock-marked the sleek surface as he felt his legs grow numb. Soon he felt the first one brush against his legs, then another. When it was a constant bumping, he raised the spikes over his head and struck down with all of his strength.
The river around him exploded and the club almost tore itself from his hands. He held on with everything he had and backed slowly, a half-step at a time towards the bank. A rock rolled under his left foot and he almost fell. Cursing as the cold was now over his belly, he kept the spikes downstream of the fish, so the current kept it impaled. When he recovered his balance and got close enough to the bank, he flipped the club, twenty pounds of salmon and all, up onto the road, where he pounced and held it with his knees while his knife cut the gills.
He washed his knife and his hands in the river, letting the fish bleed into the water. He felt a distant roaring in his ears, separate from the wind and rain and moving water. Just as he was about to get into the car, his head snapped high as his heart froze. Up at the hatchery buildings a door had slammed. When he heard the engine start, he leaped into the Buick and started his own.
How far could he get ahead before he could risk his headlights? He pictured the layout of the hatchery compound. He decided that he had maybe a thirty-second head start. If he could make it around a couple of curves, he could probably turn his lights on. But that left the long straightaway past the blimp hangars. There was no way he could get back to the highway before being seen.
Jaw set in a grim line, he knew that if he should even see the lights behind him he was as good as busted. Headlights or not, he still needed his brakes, and their lights would give him away as sure as his headlights. So he turned them on and stomped the accelerator. The Buick shot forward spewing gravel like shrapnel into the river.
He stayed ahead but knew there was no way he could make it to the highway without being seen. As he came around the big sweeping right-hand bend at the blimp hangars, he turned left, hard. The Buick slid down the long gravel apron that led into the first hangar. The headlights told him there was nothing parked inside for as far as he could see. When he was inside about a hundred yards, he turned off the lights and hammered his foot down on the parking brake. The Buick skidded sideways to a stop in the tarry dark as the unseen dust billowed around in a dense cloud.
Holding his breath he waited for whoever was behind him to pass. It was a pickup and he could just make out the Oregon Fish and Wildlife painted on the door. Relief flooded him, releasing his shoulders and belly. He felt slightly dizzy as he sat in the vast blackness.
He counted as slowly as he could to two hundred before switching on his lights. Rolling down his window, he stuck his head out and looked up. The ceiling was only shadows at an impossible height. The rain was only a distant hum. The hangars were built in 1942 for the blimps that had been used as coastal defense and reconnaissance during World War II. In the seven-acre building, a football field wide and over a thousand feet long, he had no trouble turning the Buick around. Before he reached the yawning door, he turned off the headlights, but left the parking lights on. Getting out of the car, he walked to the massive doorway and looked out. It was raining harder, but the wind seemed to have eased some. As he returned to the car, he noticed something laying in the shadows off to his right.
He walked over and nudged the shapeless mass with his boot. It was a coat. He couldn’t begin to guess how long it had lain there. He picked it up and shook it out. It was a parka with a hood, down-filled and in good shape. There were no tears in it and, as he held it in the amber light of his parking lights, he felt a surge of thanks. As if in answer, he heard a thump from the Buick’s trunk, the salmon making a last effort to swim, still hard-wired to fight anything that slowed it down. It had come so close to making it home.
He dug his flashlight from under the front seat and took the keys from the ignition. He opened the trunk and looked at the fish. The eyes were dull and the chrome-bright skin was beginning to darken. He stood for a long time looking at the salmon, until the light from his flashlight began to yellow and fade.
“Thank you,” he said and closed the trunk.
He made it back to the highway and turned north. The road was quiet for as far as he could see in both directions. He didn’t pass another car until he was near the lonely station where he’d gassed up on the way down.
As soon as he opened the door, carrying the fish and his new coat, he knew that something was different. He also knew there was no going back. He found her note on the bed. She’d convinced her friend Ellen to take her to Portland. She was going home. She’d call in a couple of days.
He sat for a long time in the kitchen staring at the fish blood on his wet pants, wishing that he hadn’t given up smoking. A wan smile crossed his face when he noticed the puddle on the floor under his boots. The kerosene lamp sputtered. He trimmed the wick, stood up, and took the fish down to the river. Someone had to clean it. It might as well be him.
Squatting in the water in the darkness at the base of the river bank, he poked the tip of his knife into the anus and gently slit open the long white belly. With a short yank, he cut through the hard cartilage near the gill plates and scooped out the guts with his hand. As dark as it was, he could still see the oily residue from the internal organs spread its sheen on the quiet water. As he washed his fish at the edge of his river, he vowed that this would be the last salmon he would ever take.