2017 Poetry Winner
by David Holper
They say, take us to the docks, so I pull out, fixing my course
on a star, wondering if the steel bulk of the Checker Marathon
will drive out on the rickety dock they guide me to, or if
all five of them—and my sorry-assed self will plunge into the narrows
that stretch between Ketchikan and Gravina, dark cold water waiting for us.
Somehow the dock holds: they pile out, a dark swarm in an even darker
summer night, two a.m., all drunk as wayward bears, or worse. They say,
Come have a drink with us, college boy. Damn bars all closed, you got nothing
to do, nowhere to go. We drink coffee royale, more Canadian Royale
than coffee, but do I care? After an hour of this, I’m looped enough
I risk everything, call John, my boss, and he cashes out my cab, so I can go
fall fishing. Hours later, I am staggering on the fan tail of the boat,
the new lead man on this swaying purse seiner. God knows, I have no idea
what I’m doing. I start to whistle in wonder:
Whatever you do, the skipper hollers down from the wheelhouse, college boy,
don’t whistle, bad luck. Don’t whistle, I think
as the power block begins to whistle its high-pitched melody—and I see
where the lip of the unknown is waiting to speak some magic
in my waiting ear.
For three days, I labor, uneven on my feet, half deaf, in my rain gear and bubble mask. I learn
how a jellyfish burns, as if the sea had gone shopping for fire,
And even with the raingear, when the net comes pouring down over the power block,
it rains whatever shit the sea has to offer, bouncing off my bubble mask, mostly,
but other times, slithering down my back. I learn fast enough not to
whistle, not to tug on the web, so the web man beside me staggers or falls. Even so,
I piss off Thomas, the skipper’s nephew, who labors beside me. And I learn to watch out
when the fish bag is swaying over the deck. If it hits you,
it could knock you flat or send you spinning over the edge. Last of all, I learn
the worst job is reserved for the greenest members of the crew, Thomas and me,
So with every set we descend into the hold and pack the salmon with ice. Down there slime
and stink abound. After one hard set, Thomas grabs a 10-pound salmon,
swings it hard, and smacks me up the side of the head, sending me flying into the muck.
When my head stops spinning, I do the reasonable thing: I pick up my own dog salmon,
and we battle it out below. While we pound each other with our fish, I hear everyone yelling,
and I look up long enough to see them cheering us on. We fight
until there is no more fight left in either of us. After that, we become the best of friends.
One last thing I learn: the word for friend in Tlinkot.
When we make landfall two weeks later, I stink in ways I did not know were possible.
I cannot wait for a cold beer and a hot shower. As we hop off the boat,
Thomas says, buy me some smokes, will you? I tell him, come with me, I’m just going
across the street to the 7/11 for a beer. He gives me a look. What?
They don’t allow my kind, he says. What kind? I say. Jesus, he laughs uneasily, where the hell
do you come from, college boy? I buy him the smokes, and we sit and drink my beer,
smoke his cigarettes. I have not fished again in all the summers that have followed, but how
can I not remember us there: the border between his world and mine, if only for
that moment, rising, disappearing in smoke.
David Holper has done a little bit of everything: taxi driver, fisherman, dishwasher, bus driver, soldier, house painter, bike mechanic, bike courier, and teacher. He has published a number of stories and poems, including one collection of poetry, 64 Questions. His poems have appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies, and he has recently won several poetry competitions, in spite of his contention that he never wins anything. He teaches English at College of the Redwoods and lives in Eureka, California, far enough the madness of civilization that he can still see the stars at night and hear the Canada geese calling.