stories from home
By Drew Cherry
Summer on the Bristol Bay coast is marked by the smell
of salmon. Acrid, biting, unmistakableit rises up like a ghoul
from blood-soaked boat hulls and canneries, the mudflats at low
tide. It rides on the cool air and settles into the tiny
Alaskan town like a stubborn stain, intent on remaining well into
August, when only the first frost can finally drive it out. Most
of the townspeople do not notice the smell, caught up in the rush
and ardor of the season as they are. Its ancillary to their
lives, as inconsequential as their own sweat. Only its absence is
notedduring the still winter months, the occasional fishermens
strike, or in an empty room thousands of miles awaylike the
wary silence after a driving rain squall.
A boy, a fishermans son, always notices the
smell. To him it has meaning. He breathes it in deep, eyes trained
on the dark water. He waits with his mother in the cab of a red
pickup truck, the harbor around them as lively as a state fairgrounds:
noises, shouts, movement. When his fathers boat rounds the
spit and plows into the harbor, the boy kicks muddy feet against
the glove compartment and points excitedly. His mother smiles, sits
up rigid, tells him to settle down.
The boy watches as his father moors his vessel, loops
the lines over the dock cleats, cinches them tight. He watches him
cross the decks of other mens boats, slap them on the back,
raise a hand in greeting. His fisherman father swaggers up the gangway,
haggard and drop-necked, hip boots turned down pirate-style, navy
blue cotton cap cocked to the side. He slings gear into the pickup,
kisses his mother through the open window and swings himself fence-hop
style into the truck bed. The boy puts his hand up to the back glass
of the pick-up, slides open the window. His father makes a goofy
face and musses the boys hair, then lays his head on the bed
liner, as if he no longer has the strength to hold it up. He reaches
up absently and pulls his cotton cap down over his eyes. The smell
of salmon wafts off him and into the cab as they pull away down
the road, towards home. The boy sniffs twice, smiles giddy at his
Father follows mother into the house where she has
been cooking all daybread, soup, casserole, rhubarb crisp.
He makes surprised, grateful declarations about the smell of the
food that make mother blush. The boy stays outside and peels scales
dutifully from his fathers yellow rain pants as if it were
a task of great import. When he becomes bored with this, he rifles
through his fathers rucksack and finds a battered can of Dr.
Pepper, picks the peanut M and Ms and chocolate chips out
of a bag of gorp, gnaws on moose jerky strips, gobbles up miniature
candy bars. It all tastes faintly of salmon, and is delicious. He
wanders inside, where his father snores loudly on the sofa, stands
over him and smells salmon on him the way others might smell whiskey.
He sits at his fathers feet and draws pictures he hopes to
show him when he wakes, but the boy falls asleep, too, and the next
morning finds his father has already gone. The boy and his mother
are left sitting around the VHF transmitter, waiting for any word.
Sometimes, his mother will turn on the AM radio and listen to the
trading post or golden oldies, which the boy will hum along to,
if he knows the song. When his mother hears the weather or the fishing
announcement, she shushes the boy and turns up the volume so loud
the dishes in the cabinet rattle. Mostly, though, they just wait.
After sitting long hours in silence, the boys mother will
sigh and stand and look around the room for something to do.
make more money in a month of fishing than you do in a year
of teaching, one says. The others laugh, because its
In the winter months, she is an English teacher at
the High School. Her students recline in their desks and ask her
why they should learn about Shakespeare.
I make more money in a month of fishing than
you do in a year of teaching, one says. The others laugh,
because its true.
It might not always be this good, she
stammers, though it sounds lame even to her.
She does not want the boy to be a fisherman, and tells
him so. She wont let his father take him out. Its too
dangerous, she reasons. The father shrugs and goes along with this.
The boy is too young to be of much help, anyway. Besides that, he
is frail, often sickly, and in all his dreaminess, unreliable. His
father doesnt mind that the boy reads books and drawshe
likes what this portendsbut he does not like that the boy
is so easily distracted, and moves through life as if under some
blithe, pie-eyed spell, the way one wanders through a carnival boardwalk.
At the end of the fishing season, the father hauls
the boat into the yard to save money on dry-dock fees. Mother doesnt
like the way it looms over to the house, but doesnt say anything.
The boy likes the boat in the yard, because it means his father
is home for good until next season. His father never stops working,
though, and busily gets things ready for the long winter, and the
next fishing season. He crawls down into the hold and scrubs it
clean with bleach and water; mixes sand in with paint primer and
refinishes the deck; sits at the living room table with his glasses
roosting on the bridge of his nose and writes generous checks to
Do you think they call them sockeye
salmon because they look like a sock? the boy asks, bouncing
on an orange buoy while his father strips his tattered nets.
Pick up these bits of twine, his father
instructs, and points his knife at the ground.
The twine is pressed into the dirt in neat little
patterns, like curlicue fossils. Its satisfying to pull them
up, but after awhile, the boy forgets what hes doing and wanders
inside and lays down in his room to draw his fathers boat.
When he finishes, he places the picture carefully on his fathers
pillow. He is sure his father will like the drawing, and that evening
in bed, fights to stay awake, waiting for him to find it. Days pass
and the father does not say anything about the picture, simply strips
nets at his bench, stopping only to sigh heavily and wipe the sweat
from his forehead with his shirtsleeve. When he finally does speak
to the boy, its only to remind him that he didnt finish
the job he started in the yard. The boy slips his tiny feet into
his fathers bloodstained, scale-speckled Romeos and flops
around the yard, glumly gleaning bits of twine, putting them in
his coat pocket for some later use.
Sometimes, his father shakes his head.
When the commercial season ends, the family puts up
fish for the winter. They stretch their net out on Kanakanak beach
and at high tide watch the water boil as the fish strike, watch
the white corks bob and pop and eventually sink below the muddy
water. They drag in the loaded net and pitch the fish, bucking and
shivering, into the pickup bed. Some are nearly as long as the boy
is, and too heavy for him to lift; his father takes those.
They drive their load home and work in the late evening
sun, the gnats and mosquitoes swirling around their faces. Father
splits and guts the fish in that careful, fastidious way of his,
never hinting that hed probably rather lay on a bed of nails
than touch another salmon after clawing them out of drift nets for
unending hours over the last two months. Mother wraps the fish in
butcher paper, tapes them tightly and passes them to the boy, who
writes Hi-Ho Silver 85 and draws cartoon fish
that wear glasses and hats and smile and talk.
His father chuckles at this cleverness, but quickly
gets back to cleaning fish. The boy draws other cartoons that arent
as funny, and finally his father tells him to cut it out; hes
holding up the line.
During the winter, they eat salmon often. Mother
rises hours before the boy, goes into the bitterly cold garage,
retrieves a mummified salmon from the deep freeze and sets it in
the sink to thaw before making breakfast and getting dressed for
work. The boy doesnt take much notice, only wrinkles his nose
at the smell.
His mother is a wonderful cook. She makes lavish salmon
dishes that other people in town dont understand or care for
that much. She tones it down when company comes, but for the family
she expresses herself with croquettes and soufflés and sashimi
and pickled roe and lox spread so smooth and delicious it makes
the fathers eyes water. She stands hours picking bones out
of the leftovers to make salmon salad. She spreads it on thick slices
of homemade bread and places the sandwich in the boys lunch
sack, which he trades for bologna or pressed turkey on white.
he calls and says fishing is dead, and explains to his son
why with all the sad finality of an elegy. Neither one of
them really knows for sure, but its something to talk
The boy longs for hamburgers. Meatloaf. Pork roast.
Fried chicken. Other families eat these things, he reasons to himself.
He comes home to the smell of salmon.
Again? he asks.
Theres people would pay $50 for a gourmet
meal like that, his father says.
We had salmon last night, the boy whines.
Eat it, his father commands. Those
fish are going to put you through college.
At the university, the boyyoung man, nowlearns,
among other things, the Latin name for salmon: oncorhynchus. He
whispers it in quiet moments alone, as if it were a one-word poem.
It bounces around his palette like a rubber ball: ON-core-ING-cuss.
He sits in hot, crowded rooms thousands of miles from his bayside
village, and scribbles notes about things that have little to do
with where he is from or what hes learned about life so far.
He tries to bring the two disparate worlds together.
He fishes for trout in a stocked stream a few miles to the north,
easily landing languid, scrawny brookies that lay in his creel like
wet rags. He visits a Chinook hatchery and argues with the docent
about the differences between pen-raised fish and wild stock. He
enrolls in a fisheries biology course and listens attentively to
lectures on riparian habitat loss and mercurial mine tailings and
dam diversions and genetic bottle-necking and the spawning process
down to the minutiae.
The fertilized eggs are nourished by the parents
decaying bodies, the professor says, his voice booming across
the lecture hall. The young man writes this down.
Ewww, a girl seated next to him says.
The boy tells his father things hes learned
about salmon over the telephone, but the father sounds disappointed,
as if the boy had explained a particularly good magic trick to him,
or given away the ending of a book.
In all the years his father fishes, the boy never
once hears him protest to the smell, so strong it taints his coffee,
or the scales that stick to his face and hands, tangle in his hair.
Nor does the boy hear him complain of his back, his tendonitis,
the raw cuts and blisters.
The boys father fishes when the waters are open,
and stops fishing when the waters are closed. He stays inside the
regulatory markers, and never motors over anyones net or strong
arms another vessel out of good grounds. He names his first boat
after his wife and his second boat after his mother, while other
men paint Salmon Killer or Cash Flow across
He hangs up his nets and waits during the strikes,
and he hangs up his nets for good when he realizes he hasnt
spent a summer with his family in over ten years. The young man
wont understand or appreciate any of this later, when he can
no longer lean close towards his fathers whiskered face and
smell salmon on him like a sweet musk. His father has long since
Isnt what it used to be, he says.
Sometimes, he will call and tell his son he thinks
it might come back, and talks at length about them buying a boat
and permit together.
I wonder if we could track down the Orena Pearl,
he muses.Ill bet that fellow would sell it back to me.
Other times he calls and says fishing is dead, and
explains to his son why with all the sad finality of an elegy. Neither
one of them really knows for sure, but its something to talk
It wouldnt take much to get back in now,
the father says. His son secretly wishes they could, but knows his
father is getting too old, though perhaps he doesnt realize
The boy is a grown man now, and does not live in the
small fishing town anymore. He left for all the reasons people leave
small hometowns, and is often sad and heartsick that these reasons
will keep him from ever living there again. He instead pays rent
on a small room in a big city, where he does not know his neighbors
and hardly ever eats salmon and, at times, feels very alone. Some
nights, the salmon visit him; they drift and skitter through his
dreams. They stare at him with their cold golden eyes, gills aflutter
and tails fanning in the murky dark. The man cannot tell if they
are mocking, or challenging, or inviting. He wants to know; he wants
to reach out and run his fingers along their smooth backs, feel
the flex and stretch of their muscle.
Oncorhynchus, he whispers.
Walking through a grocery store, the man sometimes
takes a detour from the neat, circus-colored aisles, and casually
wanders by the seafood case, the way someone else might stroll past
the deli counter to get a better look at a pretty girl, or pass
by the bakery for the scent of fresh bread.
He looks over the fish laid out on the ice chips.
If they have any Alaskan salmon, hell stop and admire the
meat, bright orange with gossamer striations.
Is it fresh? hell ask the smocked
man behind the counter, skeptically. The smocked man invariably
nods. Ill take it, he says.
The smocked man wraps the fish up tightly in butcher
paper and passes it over. The fishermans son smiles to feel
the weight and heft of the salmon in his hand. He brings it to his
face, breathes it in deep through his nose, smiles. Itís as close
as he can come to giving thanks.
Drew Cherry was born and raised in Dillingham,
He has won numerous awards for his fiction and poetry,
and is a regular contributor to The San
Francisco Chronicle and Forest
Magazine, among other publications.
Mr. Cherry lives in Portland, Oregon, and is currently
at work on a novel.