Dale hadn't ever seen anyone slime as fast as I did. Working systematically, I grabbed each Coho ( silver ) salmon without wasted motion, and pulled it lengthwise under cold water running constantly from a faucet. I held an arch-shaped, metal tool to scrape away loose, pinkish filaments. Dark parasites I flicked off I told Dale were beauty marks worn by French nobility before the Revolution. "They're going to get the blade," I said, "so it doesn't matter how pretty they are." Dale stood next to me in the standardized yellow, latex apron going from neck to knees we all wore. He laughed at my arcane humor, anything to make time get up and move.
The five of us slimers wouldn't ever catch up. The repetitious, monotonous drudge work left gaps in our collective sanity. Things irrational and surreal always boosted morale, so my antic disposition commanded attention, especially from Dale.
After sorting the silvers by weight, two fish handlers wheeled in large, wooden bins on double-forked hand jacks, heaving fish sometimes two at once onto the long, steel table. Dale always stopped sliming, dropping and dangling his arms as the salmon pile achieved critical mass, that point maximizing hopelessness and defeat. At 7:30 A.M., a very discouraging event horizon.
The disemboweled fish slid from the rear of the table toward us. A slippery heap of cold-blooded vertebrae animals: Omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidant protein, Vitamins A, B-6, B-12, D, and E. These healthy, wild salmon were the Second Coming, offering Americans salvation from trans-fatty acids. Prayers weren't required, only a willingness to give our heart a break and stop eating McCholesterol burgers.
I speed-talked about our wooden-handled instruments. My adrenalin-quick words exploded from me, letting Dale know the curved metal arch at the working end of our Capitalist Tool was actually the Arc de Triomphe, but without Napoleon's tons of stone surrounding it. That might sound ludicrous, but considering the kinetics of early morning conversation, my non sequiturs within the echoic fishery left sound prints on Dale's brain.
Since I spoke like a man possessed, deranged in fact, anything coming from my déclassé lips got a fine reception from him. Majoring in English and sociology, I retrieved all the de trop fluff located in my hippocampus. That was, as long as I didn't ignite class warfare. I covered my butt by working mistake-free and faster than anyone in the huge shed.
I never profited by factoids accumulated in lecture notebooks, gaining entrée into a career like other middle-class college graduates. My education served me best as a wellspring from which I jabbered inchoate, collegiate footnotes. No matter the content, Dale heard only my inspired word salad. He told a co-worker before clocking in that last night he'd done psilocybin and Southern Comfort, coming down with Thorazine he filched from his sister. I eavesdropped. With only an hour of sleep, no wonder my pie-hole noise made sense.
An aside. When I first made boxes, the only clean, restful gig at work, I heard "Buddha" each time I hit the pedal with my foot. I remembered a comparative religion course I had as a freshman. Buddhism's Noble Eightfold Path included right livelihood. I took up the machine's mantra and chanted, "Buddha, Buddha, Buddha" each time I tapped the pedal. The Buddha Machine's isolation was its grace note, clean and breezy near the open rear door. One way to end all desire was right occupation, but Siddharta Gautama's followers never anticipated the sliming table. Carnal best described sliming, the very opposite of spiritual.
That afternoon, we had to wait for the truck to get more Coho from the fishery's sister loading dock five blocks away. The other slimers took a smoke break outside, while Dale and I remained inside alone. We stood curiously near one another. The dank hangar: decay and shadows, ruin and decrepitude, Springsteen singing men walk through these gates with death in their eyes. Merging claustrophobia with anticipation, I stood so close that Dale's A's cap brim nearly poked me between the eyes.
Earlier that season, sitting around the break room before work began, Dale explained in excruciating detail how he got a gauze-taped throat. Apparently, everyone but me watched local TV news the previous night, so they knew the generalities. He almost got killed in a hardcore-mean bar on the waterfront when a young punk slashed his throat. We hadn't connected yet, so I sat listening to him.
"I saw flashing, like a salmon jumping in a riffle," he said to familiar workers. "It moved fast, shiny, then blood all over—Jesus, a quarter-inch, my jugular, lights out."
Dale's teeth were serrated, too much heroin. But, the words he released were fluent and certain like carrier pigeons delivering vital messages. Now, inches from me, sliming, he sported a beard concealing that scar like tough, black moss. That memory of him, stubbing out a cigarette in an empty tuna can, talking like a bard, remained with me. I'd observed his insufficient writing skills once when he filled out a simple form in the sparse office up front. Lack of education couldn't hold back word-images.
Back to break time. He stroked his beard where the knife damaged him. He causally told me that he'd done two years in San Quentin for breaking into houses, stealing to fund his habit. My _expression must've revealed no judgment, so he added, "They never knew I ripped six houses before they busted me for just one." Dale's face lit up with hope and glory, finding his adventures salutary. "I never told anybody else except my brother," he added.
Trying to perfect my simpatico, I remarked that I'd stolen a credit card a few years earlier. I billed the capitalist pig twelve meals for gourmet meals in posh restaurants. I took along three friends to celebrate Card Liberation Day. Also, I bought 15 albums with that thin plastic. Crimes in the early seventies were revolutionary because they struck blows against the empire and class system. I told him when I tried to use the card in a camera store, a suspicious clerk dialed the phone, and I ran out. Dale bent over gut-laughing, coughing out risible phlegm. With my glasses, cerebral-looking forehead, good pronunciation, and stand-offish nature, he figured college guys had a right to steal, also.
Break over, deep into the afternoon, the silvers looked like Mt. Hood. I understood Sisyphus, how myths persisted because at some historic point, a person literally had had that defining experience. A man named Sisyphus truly pushed a boulder uphill, having it roll down perhaps only once, maybe twice. But, from this he'd been severely traumatized: the eternal sufferer. From this travail countless people recited their versions of the episode until it became unrecognizable from the original, agonizing mishap. Now, Sisyphean had become anachronistic, replaced by Sparlingean.
My sleeves covered in fish scales and slime as well as my glasses ( Cheaters, Dale called them.), I picked up the pace, desperate for the day to end. History and the time-space continuum must halt. Immediately. Both eschatology and singularity would resolve the wretchedness of this soaked, finger-aching, frenetic, compulsive toil. Then, the foreman added a third guy who accelerated the salmon-tossing. The faster I scraped the dulled tool over pink, wispy strands and those small, dark maggots, the greater height and width the slippery mound grew. That silly movie: Pretty In Pink. Listen! Pink wasn't ever pretty! I'd make damn sure pretty got swept into the dustbin of colors. The very definition of pink was "salmon" for chrissake!
I and the others were silent, having forsaken speech in order for our dopamine neurotransmitters to regulate themselves. For the four slimers, that posed no problem. But, the dopamine ran without mercy in my brain's striatum while decreasing in the prefrontal cortex, and created abnormal behavior. How did I know? I read about it The New York Times. I read about it in Science. And the Journal of Psychiatric Research. Not that last one, but you got the idea. Trust me.
When the overhanging fluorescent tubes' glare beamed down onto the humungous Coho pile and ricocheted into my face, I went pinkeye. I stopped sliming, grabbed a fish in each hand and threw them simultaneously at the wall in front of me. Every salmon eviscerated and beheaded, I killed them another time, if not by deed, then intent. The others turned off their individual taps, backing off. Dale moved the fastest. Drips of water music came from the faucets. Not Stephen Reich's hypnotic minimalism. No. Imagine the Kronos Quartet playing anything amped-out on meth laced with Drano crystals.
I then clutched a Coho, kicked open the drain cover, and tossed it into the bay below: another, another, another. And one more. Dale, who survived a month in the hole in San Quentin for knocking out a prisoner's teeth, kept his distance.
"I'M SEEING WATERMELONS!"
"They're just fish, George," Dale explained.
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that heaven "had sent its insane angels into our world as to an asylum," and after ranting words heard in heaven, "the mad fit returns, and they mope and wallow like dogs." Moping and wallowing, tail between my legs, Dale steered me into the break room where I drank a lukewarm cup of instant coffee. We'd ice the fish in bins, storing them overnight in the cooler, doing them the next day. We sat on hard benches until clocking out.
He invited me for a beer in that redneck bar. We sat in a booth, drinking from bottles. He gave a head-nod, directing me to a far corner where the knifer sat. The guy appeared larger than I expected. He shot me stares, overloaded with testosterone. Dale looked ready to take him. After a few more beers, I told Dale I'd back him up if needed. I wanted to crank up my psychosis again, going berserker and kick in that guy's balls.
Fear oozed from my pores like Coho slime. Gratefully, the ripper left with chums.
Going pinkeye was strictly for sliming. I'd found my calling, at last.
About the author:
George Sparling has been published in many literary magazines, including Tears in the Fence, Lynx Eye, Potomac Review, Hunger, Red Rock Review, Paumanok Review, PoLARITY, Rattle, Pittsburgh Quarterly, Toyon, Slow Trains, and Snake Nation Review. He has a degree in English literature from Iowa Wesleyan College, and has held many jobs ranging from a welfare worker in East Harlem, a counselor and reading instructor in the Baltimore City jail, a bookstore manager, a mail carrier, a crab butcher, and, for one year, a scuba diver searching for placer gold in the backcountry of the northern California wilderness. Joseph Conrad was right: one can go mad living too long in isolation. George is in early retirement. Currently, he has just started working on a novel set on a remote northern California gold claim during the early 1970s.