1. Don’t Die
2014. My dad calls to tell me about a sheep hunt he’d been on with an old fisherman friend in the interior. He tells me to call this friend because I’ll be working on this friend’s fishing boat this summer. “You’ll either be with Andy or his identical twin brother Pete.” Two people I’ve never met or heard of before. Fishing after high school is a mundane fact in coastal Alaska, but when I tell my friends I’ll be fishing they don’t believe me. The cognitive dissonance of imagining my 18 year-old-self working on a seine boat is too much and everyone worries for me. The most common two words I hear before I leave the first time are “don’t die.”
So I fly into Cordova to fish for a man I’ve never met, with a backpack full of books I think a recently graduated 18 year-old should read. I won’t read any of them, and later in the season I’ll wish I used the backpack space for more socks.
Andy and his wife, Mel, pick me up from the airport. Andy has a lazy eye and a limp and he says it’s because his twin beat him up in the womb. Andy seems a little shy at first so Mel does most of the talking. She wears wire transition lenses, and chain smokes Marlboro reds. She is a born and raised Cordova girl.
Cordova had a railroad in and out of town, but now there’s a 30 mile stretch of dirt road where it used to be, ending at a bridge which was swallowed by the unforgiving Copper River during the Good Friday earthquake of 1964. Now, Cordova is cut off from the Alaskan highway which would connect it to other parts of Alaska like the city of Anchorage. Cordova doesn’t want this road to the city. They fear a road will take away what is special about Cordova which is that it’s really only fishing and things related to fishing. There are bumper stickers on lots of cars and businesses around town “NO ROAD.”
1989, thirty years after the Good Friday earthquake of 1964, and seven years before I am born, the Super Tanker “Exxon Valdez” runs aground on Bligh Reef and spills over 10 million gallons of crude oil into the Prince William Sound. After the spill kills the fishing industry, financial anxieties, spikes in substance abuse, domestic abuse, and suicides plunge Cordova, a town of 3,000 (mostly fishermen), into chaos. Twin fishermen and lifelong Cordovans, Andy and Pete move south along the coast to Sitka to continue fishing in waters untouched by the oil.
Andy’s boat, The Ace is brand new, fresh from the boat yard in Washington. Unlike other boats in the fleet, the living quarters are comically small. It’s the first thing people comment on when they step inside for the first time. “Oh it’s like… really small.” Andy designed it this way so as to not invite any other sort of leisure or unnecessary passengers (like his wife). “It’s a work boat, not a piano.” Andy also takes this as an excuse to keep the boat as messy as possible. The deck of The Ace is spacious and incredibly efficient in its operation. Andy likes to make sets fast. The more sets you are able to make in the fourteen hour fishing periods, the more fish you catch, the more money you make. The price of the salmon varies year to year. That’s one tactic Andy uses to keep me coming back. He keeps predicting how high the price is gonna be. “It’s gonna be the biggest year, pricewise, you’ve ever seen.” And usually it’s not and it’s a lot lower than he predicts. He makes up for this by always being one of the top three boats in the Sound. Some years his twin beats him.
3. Thom, Ethan, and Paul
Thom has minor gauges in each ear and wears a red knit cap with devil horns. He’s one of the boat builders and is on the crew to help fix and finish the boat since it was rushed out of the boat yard. One day he runs out of chewing tobacco. I hand him a slice of pizza at the end of the fishing day and he throws it in the water. He teaches me mechanical things, but it is confusing because he compares everything to jerking off. Changing oil? Just like jerking off. Tying lines? Exactly like jerking off. Unbolting a piece of equipment? Just think of it like jerking off. I don’t remember any of the practical knowledge.
Ethan was recently asked to leave his Christian college in Homer, Alaska because the administration found out he had sex with his girlfriend. He says he was called into the dean’s office and they asked him if it was true he had had sex with his girlfriend and he said yes because he was worried being caught in a lie would be worse for him.
Paul is basically the co-captain and Andy’s oldest friend. Paul is patient and teaches me a lot. Each piece of the boat is designed for a specific part of the fishing operation and I have no idea what any of it is. I’m told to do things like “shorten the purse line” and “change the oil,” “pull up the bunt,” “pop the release,” and I have no idea. Eventually you learn things until one day you understand. It took me two summers to understand what each part of the net is for. There’s the corkline, the lead, the lead line, bunt, web, breast line, purse line, rings, king ring and so on. One day it all clicks.
Nearing the end of the first season, there are a few nights where it is just me and Paul on the boat. He makes us nachos one night and he tells me about how his dad was a “real piece of shit.” I’m not sure why Paul opens up to me about his haunted past, but he does and I listen to his story and we eat nachos.
At the end of that year, Paul, Andy, and I take the boat down to Juneau. The trip takes three days. When we get to Juneau early in the morning, Andy drives me to the airport. Paul is still sleeping, so I don’t wake him up to shake his hand and thank him for everything. Later that year, Andy calls to tell me Paul’s body was found in Kodiak. Andy calls me a lot and never cries to me, but tells me about how much he’s been crying.
When I return for my second year, Andy meets me at the airport. He’s holding a baby.
“It’s your crack baby from the girl you ran off with last summer.”
This joke is morbid because Ariel has health issues as a result of her mother’s drinking during pregnancy. Andy and Mel adopted Ariel because Mel’s son couldn’t take care of her. Andy tells me that ever since they adopted Ariel, him and Mel have been going to couples therapy.
“Mel’s a lot better since she started taking her meds, huh?” he tells me. “You remember how she was.”
I do remember how she was.
“My therapist told me to leave her, but I’m not gonna do that to another kid.”
Mel has always treated me like family. One night, my first year, I was driving the boat while everyone slept. She got up to have a cigarette on the back deck and when she came back in we talked for a while and she told me I was an old soul then she went back to sleep.
Paul was Andy’s skiff man for fourteen years so Andy needs a new skiff man. I get a call from him while I’m in Boston at school.
“I think you’ll be runnin’ the skiff this year.”
“I think that’s a bad idea, I have no idea how to drive a jet boat.”
“You’re the smartest person I have on the boat.”
“I’m smart about pop culture things, not diesel mechanics and hydraulics.”
My first day back Andy tries to teach me how to drive the skiff. Andy is a terrible teacher so it’s kind of a fun disaster. He trusts me way too much to take the skiff on solo journeys and I say okay and drive the aluminum jet skiff around and it is all very fun and I accelerate and glide over waves and I pretend I am piloting a spaceship. But along comes Billy and he is already an experienced jet boat driver, so the job goes to him.
Billy runs the skiff for a few years and all day he smokes weed out of Budweiser cans. Andy calls Billy “the hillbilly.” Billy talks like a hillbilly. Washington hillbilly. Billy has court over the phone for custody disputes. I drive the skiff while he sits perched up at the bow, pointing to where I need to steer the skiff. “I just want what’s best for my daughter, your honor,” he says as he helps me steer. “I was on medication for my back surgery, but then I started smoking weed to stop with the pills.”
One summer solstice, I’m the designated driver for a few of my crew mates. There’s a party out at 27 mile. An enormous tower of burning pallets. Looks like a work shed is on fire. Two men wrestle near the fire. Someone puts a salmon in the exhaust pipe of another guy’s truck and a brawl breaks out. Billy beats the shit out of someone. Ethan has to pull him off the guy.
The next day, Billy and I are parked outside of the pizza place waiting to pick up our order. The guy he beat up walks in, his face a complete mess. Billy gets out of the car and follows him into the pizza place. I see them in there, talking and laughing. Billy comes back to the car with our pizzas. “I just wanted to make sure he knew I didn’t mean anything by it last night,” Billy says.
“What did he say?”
“He said he was really drunk and his girlfriend was pissing him off and that he doesn’t even remember it.”
The first couple of years, Andy has me mow the lawn out at his shop. The last time I mow his lawn, the lawnmower breaks down and, as I help him fix it, he tells me about seeing a car accident and holding a guy in his arms as they wait for an ambulance to arrive. The guy bled out and died in Andy’s arms. “I keep getting killed and chased by creatures in my dreams. I’m not really a crier but I’ve been a mess recently.”
My third summer, I’m in the car with Billy and Andy texts and asks if I’ll mow his lawn. Billy calls Andy, “Ben isn’t mowing your lawn, Andrew, he’s been workin’ his butt off for ya for three fuckin’ years, he ain’t gotta do that anymore.” And Andy says okay and I never mow his lawn again.
6. Mike The Spike “Livin the Dream.”
When I think about Mike The Spike, I think about the moment I liked him the most, which is when we sang bye bye miss american pie all the way through on the bow of the boat. We just nailed it, every lyric, every note, it was like we were a radio picking up the waves and channeling them through our voices. I didn’t know I knew all the lyrics, and I didn’t know Mike did either. I ask him what the name of his autobiography would be and he says, “Mike the Spike, Livin the Dream.”
Now, it’s different. Now, Andy knows if he hires Mike on the boat again, I will quit. Now, Mike takes his meds and builds nets in town. He drives an orange truck. He tells me his wife is in a wheelchair and she lives in California. He never showers and has a slicked back ponytail gelled with a homemade pomade of grease, sweat, salmon slime, jellyfish, blood. I think he’s well into his sixties but he tells me he’s forty-eight. He’s from Boston, tells me he’s the black sheep of the family because he went fishing while his sisters went to college. He doesn’t have many teeth left. He chain smokes Marlboro menthols and drinks Red Bull. I never see him drink water. He says he worked on a trawler on the east coast for a long time and it sounds like there are some real intense motherfuckers over there. When I do something Mike finds objectionable he says, “If you were on the east coast, they’d shoot you for that.” I leave the hatches of the fishhold upside down on the deck and he says, “You know they’d slap a weight to your feet and throw you overboard for that on the east coast.” He sleeps in the bunk across from me. Two hunting rifles mounted at the head of his bunk, one pointed at my head. I know they are unloaded, the safety on, but I have daydreams and real dreams about the boat hitting a wave and the gun going off, shooting me in my sleep.
Mike falls asleep watching far right conspiracy theory videos on his phone.
He shows me a video of a river.
“They found loch ness in a river in Kansas,” he says.
“Benjamin David. You must be Jewish.”
“Only a little, on my dads side” I say, prepping for antisemitism–
“I’m jealous. You’re the chosen people.”
Back in town, at the end of the season, I pack my stuff, shake everyone’s hand, say goodbye to Mike, thinking finally, I’ll never have to see him again.
I’m at the airport checking in when I hear my name through his toothless mouth and Boston accent. His boulder of a hand descends upon my shoulder and violently spins me around. He’s followed me to the airport and when I turn around I expect Mike will be holding one of the guns from his bunk and he will put the barrel of the gun against my forehead and shoot me.
He hands me a Torah with a golden leaf for a bookmark.
“Love you, brother,” he says, hugging me tight.
“Love you too, Mike,” I reply.
I can’t find the Torah anymore and this makes me insanely sad.
7. Seth and the Retired Insurance Salesman from Orange County
Seth is my enemy. I make breakfast every morning. I ask him how he likes his French toast.
“You mean queer bread?”
“Oh no, I said French toast.”
“Well, the French are a bunch of queers.”
He tells me lots of macho fishing stories I don’t think are all true. Some of them are maybe true, but others have been exaggerated and telephoned through other people’s stories. Lots of sex stories from when he worked on a cruise ship. “All these chicks are in my room trying to fuck me and I pick one up by the hair and I show her my wedding ring and I say, ‘I’m fucking married and toss her out of my room.’” He tells me about watching a guy’s head “explode like a melon.” He tells me how easy it would be to kill someone in their bunk, “Just stab ’em with a Vicky,” he says. I haven’t seen him in a long time.
The next year, Seth’s brother, Matt, fishes with us. Aside from the fact that they’re both on the shorter side, Matt is nothing like Seth. Matt is a retired insurance salesman from Orange County. He gets his foot wrapped in the anchor winch on day one and severely injures his foot.
Later in the season, at the end of a fishing day, I find him at the galley table, pale as a ghost, holding a bloody rag over his finger.
“Are you okay?” I ask, knowing full well he isn’t.
“Yeah, I think it hit the bone.”
Turns out he cut his thumb really bad with a knife trying to cut tape off of a pole.
“What in the fuck,” Sam says when I tell him what happened.
I’ll never forget Matt’s face, he’s sitting between Andy and a guy on the dock in Chanega in a golf cart-like buggy as they drive down the dock, to the hospital. “It’s like he’s trying to get hurt,” Sam says.
The rest of the season Matt stands on the back of the deck with his broken foot and his hand bandaged, wrapped in a Ziploc bag. Andy starts calling him “The Statue.”
The last time I see him, he’s working on his brother’s tender boat. He has a beard and he looks like Mad Max. He looks just as useless on a tender as he was on the fishing boat.
8. Mad Ray and James
The summer with Andy’s identical twin, Pete, is great because his boat is much better to live on than the Ace. It’s strange talking to Pete because when I look at him I feel like I’ve known him for years, but I don’t know him, and it’s jarring how different he is from his brother.
He leaves halfway through the season to go back to his home in Washington to buy a super cub airplane. He leaves the boat in Ray “Mad Ray” Renner’s hands. Mad Ray tells me he doesn’t like the nickname Mad Ray anymore. Now that he has kids he just wants to be Ray. If he wants to be Ray, he’s doing a bad job. His license plate says “MadRay” and it’s the name of his boat, too.
The skiff man on Pete’s boat is a guy named James. His skin is tanned from the California sun where he spends the rest of his year when he’s not in Cordova. Handsome in his heyday, he now has a big belly. His heydays were spent chasing fish and doing a lot of cocaine. He has an 11-year-old daughter he often calls and is sweet to. He and his ex-wife talk all the time and are good friends. When Pete leaves for Washington, it’s just James and I who stay on the boat when we are in town. I think he’s in recovery but then he says, “Let’s go get a beer,” kind of joking, I guess just testing the waters. He says he doesn’t drink anymore but he’ll have a fucking beer here and there. We go to The Reluctant Fisherman to have a beer. I have an Alaskan brand rasberry something and he nurses a Coors Light from the can. We talk about fishing. The whole time I’m nervous because I heard a story about James that I know is true. The last time he got drunk was in Dutch Harbor, a year ago, while he was longlining with Andy. I heard he went off the rails a little, tried grabbing the steering wheel of the taxi he was in, and spent a few weeks in jail. Pete flew up to Dutch Harbor to sign him out of jail and accompany him back to his home in Santa Cruz.
A few years later, I tell Sam about the time I had a drink with James.
“That’s fucked up man, he’s in recovery,” Sam says.
Andy’s nephew, Little Andy, shoots his first deer. Pete sits in such a way so that Little Andy can rest the rifle on his dad’s shoulder and blast the deer. He shoots and the deer runs off into the woods. I think I’ll remember this day for the rest of my life because I’m pretty sure Little Andy will also remember this day for the rest of his life. Pete asks Billy, Sam, and me to track down the deer while he and Little Andy look for another one. We follow the blood trail down the mountain. Halfway down, we smoke weed out of a Red Bull can. The view is unbelievably beautiful. The boat is small, anchored in the cove. We walk back down and follow a dry riverbed to the beach to be picked up. Somewhere along the way we find a little hideaway, hundreds of dead salmon carcasses rest under some branches.
“Bear den,” Sam says. “Keep a lookout.”
Sam’s filling falls out of his mouth. The hole gets infected. He stops eating and talking. I tell Andy, “I’m worried about Sam’s tooth.”
“Sam is fine.”
“He hasn’t talked in two days.”
“He hasn’t had any food either.”
“He’ll be fine.”
I peek downstairs and Sam is cleaning his pistol at the table.
“I don’t think he’s that fine.”
Andy calls the pilot, Frank Futti, to fly Sam into town to get his tooth fixed. We make a few sets without Sam.
Sam comes down to the galley where I’m sitting at the table.
“So Ben. I gotta ask…what does salmon cum taste like?”
I go along with the bit. “Oh man, the best. I love salmon cum. I eat it everyday. Guzzle guzzle guzzle.”
“That’s fucked up.”
“Need the protein.”
“You remember when Ethan fed you cum?”
“Ethan said he fed you fried salmon cum your first year.”
“What do you mean?”
“Ethan got some salmon cum at salmon fest, said he fried some up on the boat.”
I vaguely remember Ethan offering me what he said at the time was fried sea cucumber.
“Yeah that wasn’t sea cucumber. Just cum,” Sam says. “Salmon cum.”
We climb the small ladder and find Andy watching Zoolander on his laptop. Sam asks him, “Did Ben eat salmon cum?”
Without missing a beat, Andy says, “Yeah, Ethan fed Ben salmon cum his first year,” and puts his headphones back on.
Robby shoots a deer on the first day of hunting season. He drags the deer down a gravel hill, guts it, cleans it, and quarters it out onto a patch of leftover snow.
“Have you seen this before, Ben? Don’t pass out on me!”
I have seen it a couple of times, it doesn’t really phase me. People in Cordova love acting like I’ve never seen basic Alaskan imagery. I think it’s because of my glasses. I don’t know.
Pete meets up with us. He tells Robby that the pilot, Frank, is there to take him to town because his little daughter fell and she’s hurt. I carry the deer head down the mountain by the antlers.
The summer I work with Pete I also work with a guy named Cooper. A while ago, Cooper went to Florida for construction work. The guy he worked for was really nice to him, always had Fox News on, and Cooper started watching Fox News. I ask him why he supports Trump and he pauses a moment before saying, “Because I watch Fox News.”
Cooper has two kids, Madden and Millana, and his boat is called The Mad-Milla. He’s married to Sam’s sister and he’s been sober and off of oxy for fifteen years. He used to do and sell a lot of oxy. This was when he was “shacked up with a stripper.” In Fairbanks.
“I smell smoke,” I say over the headset.
It smells like a campfire and I’m not alarmed, someone could be having a fire on a nearby beach.
“Robby, go check the engine room,” Andy says. He’s coughing, “Holy smokes, I can’t see Montague Island.”
“Wildfires,” Sam says with an old southern confidence. This is the first time I hear about wildfires in Alaska.
Pete comes on the radio
“Andy, call the Coast Guard”
“Call the fucking Coast Guard, Cooper hurt his leg.”
Andy calls the Coast Guard.
Cooper’s foot was wrapped around a line, the skiff pulled on it, his shin snapped, bone out, he went overboard into the water.
The Coast Guard arrives and it takes a long time for the helicopter to lower the basket and fly Cooper to Anchorage for surgery.
Cooper can barely gillnet these days because of his leg, the rod, the so many screws. It swells up tremendously and it gives him pain. Sam helps him gillnet. The last time I see him, he looks worried. I wonder if his leg will affect him for the rest of his life.
At the end of that season, I go out for a night of drinking with Robby and his wife, Kaylee, who makes backpacks, purses, and wallets with seal fur. Billy and his girlfriend are there. I place my jacket on the chair at the bar and when I look up their friend, Tiffany, is wearing it. She offers to rent me a room in NYC, way more than I can afford, and I wonder if she is trying to scam me. Then we go to the Anchor Bar. Billy gives me half a tab of acid. Outside, on the porch, Billy is drunk and saying awful things to his girlfriend.
We end the night at The Alaskan Bar. It’s the perfect trifecta of the only three bars in Cordova; The Reluctant Fisherman, The Anchor, and The Alaskan. Tiffany, wearing my jacket, is absolutely handing it to Billy for being a piece of shit to his girlfriend. He looks ashamed. The acid kicks in and I leave in a good mood. The next day I hear from multiple people that Robby head-butted a Russian guy after he asked Robby where his “bitch little friend with the glasses is.”
I guess he was referring to me.
11. Not One Drop
I become obsessed with the Oil Spill. I see it as Prince William Sound’s flood story. There is one book that towers above all other media made about the spill and it’s called Not One Drop by Dr. Riki Ott. It’s part memoir, part historical document. I ask Mel if she knows Riki. She says she works at the science center at the harbor and I can find her there. It sounds too easy.
Then I ask McKenna. He’s mentioned in the book.
“Shiiiiiit, Riki hasn’t lived in Cordova in yeeeeaaarrrs.”
“Where is she?”
“Last I heard she was in Puget Sound or something.”
I ask if he has her number. He says his mom does and he’ll ask her.
“When I was a kid I remember waking up in the middle of the night and my mom was filming Riki going through everything she was finding with all the fucked up shit Exxon was doing. And the next day Riki left for New Zealand for a few months so she could finish her book, but my mom tells me they were filming because they thought she was gonna get popped or something. They were tapping her phone, sending her death threats, really scary shit. Fuck, then there’s Sid Rogers. He committed suicide after Exxon sent some people into town to scare him.”
Later in the season, I text Riki and she texts me back:
Hello Ben! Thanks for your kind words. I’m currently hiking on a sandy beach at low tide on an island in Puget Sound. Barefoot. Are you fishing now in Prince William sound? I’d love to talk, but I need to check in with a colleague this afternoon first. Maybe later?
I’m happy because it sounds like she is safe.
Andy says his uncle Bob, the first person to be inducted into the Alaskan Commercial Fishermen’s Hall of Fame, saw a UFO hover above his boat for fifteen minutes before it suddenly disappeared. He says lots of people saw UFOs in Prince William Sound in the ‘60s.
“Because that’s when people started fuckin’ with nukes, so they came to check on us make sure we didn’t blow ourselves up.
13. The Last Time I was in Cordova
After six years of knowing him, Andy tells me he’s very religious. He gives me a bible to read. He takes hikes up the mountain before big fishing days.
“You know why I do that?”
“To clear your head?”
He says he saw an angel once on the top of a mountain. The angel told him about Ariel, how he and Mel would adopt her and take care of her. And the angel told him to move back to Cordova to become a seiner. The angel told him everything that was going to happen to him.