Newborn salmon. Image courtesy of OpenCage.
The last half of my flight was a slow sunset that ended shortly after I landed. Just before Vancouver, the plane dropped into the clouds, racing blindly toward the city.
As we taxied on the runway, I ripped up a letter my mother had given me before I left Virginia. He could charm anyone. He knew what to tell me to make me do and think what he wanted. But you are more adult than I was. You will see through him and decide what is best. You are your own man, and no matter what he wants, you will make the right decisions...
This was a technique of hers, to praise me for being what she wanted, and after reading her letter, I wondered if she’d learned it from him. I tore the paper into strips and shoved them in the pocket of the seat in front of me, then stood to get my backpack.
I was wearing torn jeans and a black t-shirt, and in the forward shuffle of the airport line, I considered my appearance—my posture, my stride, the way I held my head, whether I should gesticulate when I spoke or hook my thumbs in my belt loops. Was frequent eye contact childish, an aloof gaze more masculine?
The crowded customs hall opened onto a lobby, cavernous and silent but for echoing footsteps. It took me a while to notice the man at the window, gazing out as a plane touched down on the distant runway. He turned and stared, hands in the pockets of his leather jacket. He had on white running shoes and crisp jeans, the denim creased from the shelves. It was the first time I’d seen him without a beard.
“Hey,” my father said, and came forward. Awkwardly, he shook my hand and gave me a sort of half-hug.
I stood a good bit taller, and he looked me over, then glanced around the room and back. I’d recalled a towering man, shadowed eyes that seemed angry even when he smiled. He was darker than I remembered, his features chiseled and, when he spoke, his accent thicker than over the phone. He looked like someone I might pass on the street.
He stepped back and reached out to pat my arm. The cuffs of his blue shirt showed an inch past those of his jacket.
“I’m happy you’re here,” he told me. “Are you hungry?”
“Sure,” I said. I had to cough to bring moisture to my throat.
Outside, a misting rain was falling. “That’s my truck,” he told me. He motioned with his jaw to a red-and-grey GMC. “I like having a new one. Having a nice car is like wearing a good suit. If you want a loan or you want to be trusted in a deal, people see your car and they know you’re making money.”
The inside smelled of cologne and vaguely of fish. As he drove, he talked about music. He said he liked what was new, what was popular, that he had the same tastes as young people. Going a little too fast, he steered the truck through scattered traffic, then jerked the wheel and took us into a sluggish procession of wet cars.
“I need to check on the market,” he said. “Then we can go eat.”
The market’s parking lot was mostly empty, a line of broken flowerpots against the wall, an old woman in a mustard trench coat shuffling in circles, searching for change. As we walked through the doors into the airy space of glass displays and food stalls, I thought of Granville Island, where he’d once had a shop. The babble of scents—bagels and flowers, seafood and hot dogs and bread—recalled my brother, my sister and me running between booths. The display coolers here seemed no different: white ice with salmon, green crabs, orange-mesh bags of mussels.
The girl at the counter told him that someone was at the delivery door, and he hurried to the back of the shop and went outside.
“Where do you want this?” I heard a man ask, his voice unfriendly.
“Leave it here. I’ll get my son to help me bring it in.”
“Huh?” A pause. “This on credit again?”
“I’ll have money for you at the end of the month.”
“Fine, fine. How’s the shop?”
“Business picks up closer to Christmas.”
The restaurant had a neon sign—Knight and Day. A mermaid coughed irregular spouts into a fountain, her breasts mossy, the water brown. Drizzle gusted. The mist had disappeared into night.
As my father crossed the parking lot, he checked his pockets for his keys. The image jarred a memory, a younger him doing the same. But the man I remembered was large and strong. My father seemed to hover between two selves, like a TV screen caught between channels.
We sat at a window facing the street. The emptiness of the dining room gave it a tawdry look, a few hunched men eating late dinners alone. The air of tension around my father returned, vanished and returned again. Despite my age, he ordered me a beer. This was where he went after work, he told me. He knew the waitress by name and commented on her legs. She had bleached hair and blue shadows under her eyes from running makeup.
“You don’t like talking about women?” he asked when I glanced away.
“I just don’t think she’s pretty.”
He laughed. “Of course she’s pretty. Look at her. Either a girl’s pretty or not pretty. She’s pretty. Maybe you’re too young to know.”
He didn’t speak for a moment, and I said, “I want to hear about the banks.”
My voice ended in a croak, as if these were my dying words.
“What?” he asked.
He slid his placemat back and forth, staring at it, breathing through his mouth, lips slightly parted and jaw pushed forward. He did this because his nose had been broken. A man had hit him in the face with a chain when he’d stepped out of a bar, and as a boy I’d occasionally imitated the look, hoping for the sculpted chin, the furrow below the bottom lip like the mark of a finger pressed into clay. I studied him, as I had when I was a child.
“I’m proud,” I told him with a confidence that surprised me. “I’m proud to have a father who’s done incredible things. I’ve always dreamed of being like that.”
“I don’t know why in the fuck she ever told you,” he said. With his fingertips, he continued to slide the placemat back and forth.
“What was it like?”
His gaze was briefly sad, but he said nothing, just sighed and shook his head.
“I don’t care about all this other stuff,” I told him. “I want to hear about that.”
“What other stuff?”
“The market. It’s boring. I want to hear about your crimes.”
I moved my hand dismissively, and he stopped fidgeting. He thrust his jaw forward, narrowing his eyes. Then something changed, the way the mood around an actor might shift after he’s asked to get into character. His jaw had gone a bit crooked, and he was squinting one eye, working something out.
“I don’t talk about it anymore.”
“I want to hear about it,” I told him, more softly than intended, as if coaxing.
Very faintly, he nodded. “What do you want to hear?”
“Just a story. A good one.”
“A good one?” He considered. “There was this one bank job in particular. In the pen, that’s all the guys talked about. The big job. The last crime. Once you did it, you’d never have to work again. Everyone had ideas. Everyone was a fucking genius of crime. I didn’t know anything until I went to prison. I was just a kid. It was like going to school, and there were all these men talking about the big job. I didn’t go in with plans, but once I was there I learned fast. The big job was all that mattered to me. I imagined one perfect crime. It’s like I’d have been famous if I did it. It’s stupid.”
“It’s not stupid,” I said, thrilled that he was talking to me like this, like a man. “Did you do it?”
“Yeah. I did a perfect one, but someone else fucked it up. It was the biggest one. It was the craziest. The best aren’t always the craziest. But this one was. I planned it for a long time.”
“Could it still be done?”
He shrugged, then stared off, as if composing himself or remembering or simply accepting that he was going to tell a story he hadn’t spoken of in years.
“There were a few of us—me, my partner and his girlfriend. I set the whole thing up. I knew more than they did. It was in 1967, in Hollywood. I rented a surveillance apartment across the street from the bank. I planned the job for the night Lyndon Johnson was in town. He was giving a speech, and I knew that all the police would be looking after him.”
His words confused me. I’d seen him as wild and careless in his risks. This calculation was new, and it felt dangerous.
“For a week before I broke in, I parked a box truck in an alley by the bank. I parked it right next to a window with bars in it. The night LBJ was giving his speech, I backed the truck up to the window and went into the box and cut the bars. No one could see me because I was inside and the window was hidden by the back of the truck. And if anyone did come by, they didn’t think anything because the truck had been parked there all week.”
As he spoke, he reminded me of someone doing math: first considering an equation, staring off blankly and trying to work it out in his head, then seeing how it could be done, certainty and confidence returning to his gaze. Telling the story, he seemed stronger than he ever had, as if his words were bringing his true self into focus.
“I used a jackhammer to blow a hole through the vault. My friend was with me, and his girlfriend watched from the apartment across the street. They had walkie-talkies, and whenever she saw someone, I stopped jackhammering.
“The hole I made wasn’t very big because the concrete had bars running through it. I could blow out only what was between them. Then I pulled myself in. I threw all of the money out. But when I went to leave, I couldn’t. It’s hard to explain, but the jackhammering made a grain in the concrete that pointed inward. When I tried to crawl out, it hooked on my clothes. I didn’t want to tell my friend, because with all the money in the truck, I was worried. I took off my clothes and put them through the hole. Then I pulled myself out. I had scrapes everywhere. I was covered in blood...”
He paused, swallowed and looked down, his expression confused, as if he were struggling to connect his life now to his past.
“Right before we left, we smashed open all the safe-deposit boxes. That was probably the only dumb thing we did. We already had a lot of money.
“But the police found out it was me. It wasn’t my fault. It was my partner’s job to make sure the surveillance apartment was clean. His girlfriend and me took the money into the country. She had a gun so she could feel safe, and he should’ve been ten minutes behind. Only thing is, he got nervous about the apartment and was afraid we’d left prints, so he decided to set fire to it. I don’t know what the fuck he was thinking, because the police would see right away it was connected. We’d already cleaned it once, and he just had to wipe the knobs down one last time if he thought there were fingerprints. He could have splashed soapy water. Instead, he poured gasoline on everything.
“In the kitchen, the gasoline dripped down to the pilot light. The whole place went up. I don’t know how he didn’t get killed. His eyes got burned. That’s the only serious thing that happened to him, other than getting arrested.
“I guess the police made him a deal, because he told them everything. I already had a criminal record. All the police had to do was get my files and fingerprints. They sent pictures all over the country. It was about a year before they found me in Miami...”
He looked up and studied me, his eyes moving in slow, barely discernable increments. All this was bigger, more complex than I’d expected, more businesslike. He spoke of his partner as a disappointed employer might of an employee. And yet I was relieved that my earlier impressions were false. He was more than he’d seemed to be.
“Never repeat any of this,” he told me, his eyes on my face—“not to anyone. Nobody ever needs to know what I’ve done.”
His house stood off a wooded lane on the edge of Surrey, a sprawling suburb. Trees and overgrown hedges and a high fence closed it in, and his six dogs ran free. He’d bred German shepherds since before I was born, calling them simply “shepherds,” and now, oddly, he sold new litters to the police. He also had three cats, and hair of various colours cross-hatched the carpets and linoleum. A sweaty crust of flea powder edged the rugs.
He’d built the back patio into a high enclosure where he kept a hulking breeding stud. When he’d run across the ad for the 150-pound shepherd and gone to see it, the people at the kennel had directed him to the cage but kept their distance. True to what he’d read, the dog had bullish shoulders and a handsome snout brimming with teeth. My father walked up, opened the gate and went inside. Everyone stopped what they were doing and watched. He petted the dog, inspected its paws and mouth, and decided he liked it. Only later did the owner tell him that he was the first person the dog had allowed near it in almost a year.
The same was true of the years to follow. The patio door had two crossbars like those on a barn, and when I passed it, I heard the dog’s heavy, padded steps approach. It snuffled about the cracks at the bottom and sides, then began to growl. It stood and put its paws against the door, and the wood creaked and popped softly within its frame.
I slept on a dusty couch in the basement. Cobwebs strung the ceiling, and the floor’s peeling linoleum was like leather. The furnace came on with a loud whirring, the air smelling of exhaust.
“What’s there to eat for breakfast?” I asked in the morning, opening the fridge.
Aside from Pepsi and cream-filled chocolate rolls, it held only a plate and cup.
“Why do you have dirty dishes in here?”
“So they don’t get mouldy,” he told me, “and I can reuse them without washing.”
Though he’d gone bankrupt five years earlier, he now had three stores. There was the one in the public market, as well as the same snack bar at the ferry landing where he’d had a fight years ago. He seemed to be retracing his steps. He’d owned his main store before the bankruptcy, a rundown building, the rotting floors reinforced by loosely placed plywood, so that crossing the room felt like walking on ice.
His acquaintances reminded me of when I was a boy. He’d taken me along to meetings with Aboriginal men in gravel parking lots near highways, during which I chewed strips of smoked salmon as he spoke in a hushed voice. I grew accustomed to the presence of men whose strength I sensed in their stillness, in the way they watched.
His employees had fallen on hard times, evicted or newly paroled. They cleaned fish behind the store, glaring at the knife and bloody cutting board. Everyone he knew worked for him in some capacity. They borrowed money or wanted to sell him things, and he had a list of men who’d tried to take him for a ride and who could no longer be trusted. Oddly, even these men came by and spoke with him, shaking his hand before leaving.
That first week we made deliveries often. He was reticent when I asked for stories. He said his life had changed, that he wasn’t the same person. Sometimes he told me how happy he was to have me back. He smiled, but then pursed his lips, studying me intently. Often, when we passed stores, he asked if I liked anything and insisted on buying whatever I showed interest in. He got me the leather jacket I wanted, bulky and thick. And then, as soon as I put it on, his gaze went dead.
I couldn’t stand his work: the odour of fish, the scales that stuck to everything like dull sequins. I was waiting for crime stories, my thoughts following the paths of novels. But before long these novels became a problem. Whenever I was bored, waiting in the car or while he talked to employees, I read.
“It’s rude,” he told me.
“I’m just waiting.”
“You don’t need to read.”
“But I’m just sitting in the truck,” I said.
“Didn’t she teach you to do anything other than read those goddamn books?”
“You read those books too much.” He pulled into the street, acting engrossed by the traffic. The way he said books made them sound childish, as if he wanted me to behave like a man.
It had never occurred to me that I could rebel only against those who refused to accept what I was. Since my criminal interests didn’t anger him, they seemed innocent, whereas the literature my mother had encouraged was questionable. I realized he’d probably never read a novel. What was it like to be someone who’d never finished a last page, never experienced that amalgam of fullness and loss, satisfaction and longing?
We drove along the highway through tepid, quickly vanishing sunlight. He had another meeting, he told me, this time in the offices of a packing-house, and he parked and hunched off through the drizzle. Soon, the windows were opaque with rain and condensation. I put down my book. Why had I come back? What had I imagined? A fantasy of my father and me crossing the bright tiles of a bank, dark figures set against the light?
I dug around in the trash on the floor for a pen and a scrap of paper. I drew his face, the dark curl on his forehead making him resemble a cartoonish Elvis. He appeared somewhat Mexican, distinctly foreign, and I couldn’t understand how he was my father.
Footsteps padded over the concrete, and his shadow moved across the driver’s window as the door handle clicked. I crumpled the paper.
Our next stop was a late lunch at an A&W. He didn’t appear talkative, so I told him about the time my friends and I stole a motorcycle, and then, when he showed no interest, about a summer day when Brad and Travis and I had walked the tracks and decided to derail a train. We’d found a heavy, rusted plate of indeterminable origin and hefted it onto a rail. We waited on the embankment, but after an hour the train hadn’t come and we went home.
He barely looked at me, busy dipping fries in ketchup, three or four at a time, and pushing them into his mouth. It seemed he was finished with crime stories for good.
“Why do you do this?” I asked.
“This work. Fish. It sucks.”
He flinched, then drew himself up, straightening his back as if to command respect.
“You used to love helping in my stores when you were a kid.”
I shrugged, not sure why he cared so much. “What about school?”
“What about it?”
“When am I going back?”
“It’d be better for you to work a bit,” he said. “You were never good at school. Why don’t you take some time off so we can get to know each other?”
“But I am going back, right?” I hated his stores, and school was the only escape I could think of.
Derision tweaked his upper lip, making him look a little like Elvis after all.
“You don’t know how hard it was to get the business going again after the recession,” he said. “Your mother just left. She didn’t care that I was struggling. I lost everything and ended up living out of an old van. You really don’t understand.”
It was my turn to focus on the food. He was blaming my mother for his bankruptcy, but I remembered how he’d spent money before we’d left him. Even now he lavished it on employees, tossing crisp hundreds on fast-food counters. Maybe my mother was right to leave.
We drove back through the city, the tops of skyscrapers hidden in the mist. He asked me to help with the next few errands, and this was a relief, though we hardly spoke.
By dinner, he appeared pensive. We were in another of his drab restaurants, and I worried that my aloofness might bring out his temper. I remembered how angry he could get, how frightening. But now he looked uncertain.
“When I learned to crack safes, I wasn’t much older than you.” He glanced at my face to see if I was interested. “It wasn’t easy. You had to be really focused to do it, but I liked the challenge. That’s when I started crime. Everything else happened because of that.”
He described his departure from his village in Quebec, how he worked as a logger when he was sixteen, away from home all winter—and then in mines and construction. “But one day a friend died on a high-rise. He fell headfirst, and I realized I had to do something different.”
He spoke softly, sounding tired, as if he had little interest in sharing his past but knew it was the only way to reach me. Someone in Montreal taught him safecracking, he said, his voice becoming angry—and this same person, his first partner, later set him up. In prison, my father learned how to burglarize banks and launder money.
“I did a lot after that. I tried to get out of crime a few times, but it was hard to go back to shit work. I ended up in California and Nevada, pulling armed robberies. We’d head to Vegas and blow our earnings in a weekend, then rob another store or bank, and drive to a resort in Tahoe. I’d grown up with snow, but I had no idea how to ski. We’d buy the most expensive ski clothes and hang out in the bar and pick up models. I’d tell them I was a businessman but that I couldn’t say what I did. They loved it. Then I went to prison again and was deported. That’s around the time I met your mother.”
He hesitated. “But crime,” he said, “crime was a good life. I’ve seen some crazy things.” He leaned forward, smiling, and described what it was like to blow $50,000 in a night at a Vegas casino. “Diana Ross was next to me for about forty thousand of it. If I hadn’t been trying to get back what I’d lost, I’d have taken her home...”
He no longer spoke as if his words were for me. His gaze opened out, as though just to my left was spread the vista of his past. Staring into it, he grew silent.
“What’s the scariest thing you’ve done?” I asked, afraid that he’d stop talking.
He sighed and smiled slowly. “The time I got the front page. I forget which paper it was. I should have made the front page for the burglary, but LBJ got it then. I got the second. He was the president, and that seemed pretty fair to me.
“But the thing is, it wasn’t really me who made the front page. It was the guy I robbed. He owned a jewelry store that’d been held up five times, and he’d just been interviewed for an article on crime in LA. I guess he said something about how he’d never let it happen again. He said he had a gun and would rather shoot or get shot. If I’d known that, I’d have done some other place. You don’t want to rob people like that. Common sense doesn’t work with them…”
Our food had arrived, but he didn’t pause to eat, just kept staring off, serious now. I struggled to make sense of the way he changed as he spoke. With each word, he seemed more dangerous, more real, more certain, as if there was nothing he couldn’t face.
“We used to dress up nice when we did a job; that way, no one would suspect us. People think the poor are criminals. We’d just go in and ask to look at the jewelry, then hold them up. I sold it all to some guys I knew in the mob. They didn’t give us much, but jewelry stores were easier than banks. There was almost never security.
“Anyway, when I pulled my gun on this guy, he grabbed his. I almost shot him. There was at least a second—and that’s a long time—when we stood with our guns pointed at each other. I saw he wasn’t going to shoot. I don’t know how I knew. I told him I would kill him. He had his gun aimed at my chest, but I had mine to his head and that’s scarier. I asked if he was ready to die, and he put the gun down.”
He studied me now, maybe wondering why he was telling me this, what it meant. I wished he was still the person he’d been, the one he seemed to be when he spoke.
“I don’t talk about this anymore,” he said. “I barely think about it. But that was a crazy moment. I thought I’d shoot him. If you kill someone, the police don’t give up on you the way they do when you pull a robbery. Insurance can’t do anything for dead people.”
Suddenly, I wasn’t sure what I was looking for. I saw my mother’s face so clearly she might have been there. She’d said she trusted me. She’d written that my father charmed people, but there was nothing he wanted from me, and she’d been wrong about so much.
“You want me to tell you these stories?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. “I love them. I want to hear them all.”
He nodded. “I remember getting the paper the next day. The guy described me as over six feet tall and dark. I thought that was funny. It’s amazing what fear will make you see.”
“Do you miss it?” I asked.
“Sometimes.” His expression softened. “You’d be good at crime. It takes people with nerves. But you have to want that feeling. I don’t know why I did. I just did. I was so angry. When I was growing up, we were so fucking poor. I didn’t want to have a miserable life.”
For a moment after he stopped speaking, he kept his eyes lowered. Then he looked up. His expression reminded me of when I was a boy and he would read the paper in his chair. Sometimes I went to the living-room door and watched. He was serious and concentrated and sat a long time without moving. Then he lifted his eyes, and there was a moment when he was just seeing me, staring, before warmth entered his expression. He had the intensity of a guard dog fixing its gaze, trying to recognize the person approaching.
That evening, when we got home, he sat down and turned on the TV as he always did, the channel muted and set to hockey.
“Have you ever thought about being a criminal?” he asked.
I tried to swallow but couldn’t. I mixed a shrug and a nod, letting my head tip to the side thoughtfully, the entire gesture slow and considered so I could insist he’d misunderstood if he was angry.
“You’re like me,” he said. “You’d be good at it.”
Up to this point, my fantasies had been of easy heists and open horizons, the distant blue jewel of a roadblock on a desert highway. Again, I thought of my mother.
“It’s a good life. You have the best of everything,” he added. He set his elbows against his knees and studied his watch, tracing the dial with a flat fingertip. He was cleaning it, I realized, picking away fish scales. “It’s better than what I do now. A lot better.”
It was dark, raining again as we arrived at the market with two plastic crates of fish, each about 500 gallons. They’d been loaded by forklift, and normally we emptied them by hand. I hated this work.
“Can’t we just put the truck in reverse and hit the brakes?” I asked. It was the sort of comment I’d made often over the years, adults rolling their eyes, but my father turned in his seat to judge the distance to the delivery door. He jammed the accelerator, and the truck shot forward and stopped sharply at the edge of the lot. The crates slid to the back window.
“This should work,” he said.
Then he threw the truck into reverse and hit the gas. I twisted in my seat. The market wall was approaching fast. He slammed the brakes.
The tires screeched, and the crates hopped from the bed of the truck and seemed to hang briefly, suspended. They landed upright and skidded to the wide delivery door.
We got out, shocked into silence, and inspected the crates. Heads lifted, everyone in the market stared at us, like deer in a field.
He smiled at me, his grin easy, not followed by scrutiny or anger. I laughed as if we’d done something like this every day of our lives. We did it again three days later, but one of the crates spilled, hundreds of small salmon flashing across the market floor, under counters. For the next hour, we gathered them, customers and nearby vendors occasionally bringing us a fish, offering it to us as if it were a wallet forgotten in a restaurant.
We were back at Knight and Day, beneath the same dim, green metal lamps. He hadn’t said much other than to order. As he sat he rolled the edge of his paper place mat.
“Listen,” he said. “I have a job for you. Some Indians are making a delivery tonight, and I want you to take care of it.”
“What do you mean?”
“Business has been hard. It wasn’t easy to start up again. So I buy from the Indians. They can fish as much as they want. And they always have good quality.”
I just nodded, trying to mask my thoughts. I didn’t say that what he was doing was illegal. That would be ridiculous. But this wasn’t the crime I wanted.
“They’re bringing a load of salmon to the place near the ferry. You can stay there for a few days. A girl who works for me lives there. She’ll explain things to you if you need help. There’s a road behind the house and some old freezers in the woods. The Indians have been there before. There’s also a scale. Make sure you use it. Don’t let them use theirs. And make sure you clean the ice off the plate if there’s any. You have to watch that they don’t weigh the salmon with ice in them. Check the cut where they were gutted.”
After a pause, he said, “There should be about 2,000 pounds. You can do this?”
“Of course,” I said, not sure that I wanted to. But at least he trusted me and thought I could handle it.
“Just make sure nobody can see from the road. And I want you to do the weighing. You should be the one to read from the scale and write it down. You’ve seen me do it. It’s easy.”
The road descended through rocky pine forest. The green numbers on the dash read 10:17, and the truck’s tires vibrated against the ridged surface of a bridge. I watched a lamppost pass, catching my reflection in the window.
“She’s eighteen,” he said of the girl who worked at the ferry. “You guys should get along.”
The green trailer with a hand-lettered Fish ‘n’ Chips sign looked the same as I remembered, next to the misted river, just off the road where cars lined up. A few drivers stretched their legs as the ferry’s lights moved across the dark expanse.
Gravel crunched beneath the tires, and my father parked, though the driveway continued, rutted and muddy, into the forest. Yellow paint peeled from the house like birch bark, and a strand of green and red bulbs hung between a post and the snack bar awning, their colour flaking, showing bright specks of light. A girl came to the door. Dark, curly hair framed her face, and her skin was faintly olive. She wore jeans, and a thin white shirt hung against her breasts.
Little was said beyond introductions. My father was the only one speaking, the girl’s eyes darting back to him after she glanced at me. Her name was Jasmine, and he told her I’d be sleeping on the couch. She forced a smile, her front teeth separated by a gap like a coin slot.
He and I then walked back along the looping driveway. It was dark beneath the pines but for the pale rectangles of two ancient freezers. He told me to put the salmon in them and handed me a wad of twenties.
“A thousand dollars,” he said. “Don’t give it to them until the end.”
After he’d left, Jasmine and I hardly spoke. She lingered in the kitchen.
“I put some blankets on the couch,” she told me.
“Are you okay? Is there anything you need?”
“No, I’m fine.”
“Okay, well, goodnight,” she said, and went upstairs.
The room with the couch had a scantily decorated Christmas tree that leaned in its stand, anchored to an outlet by a string of lights. I lay and stared at the ceiling, trying to feel that this was important, that I was doing something serious and impressive.
After weeks of dreaming about the addictive terror of risk and the hard-earned win, here I was. Maybe even when the crime was serious, you were alone in a dingy room, waiting on something you didn’t care about, just for money. I’d wanted the thrill, that and to be with my father. I hadn’t imagined ex-cons like his surly employees, warily meeting my gaze as if waiting for an accusation. People my age seemed hopeful, and I hadn’t really considered life without school. My mother had been obsessed with education when I was little. She and my teachers had encouraged me to write, but did I love novels because I’d loved my father’s stories? He’d never even read a book.
I gazed past the threadbare curtains. Drivers sat behind damp windows, exhaust rising in the glow of taillights. Cars and trucks left the ferry landing, tires banging over corrugated metal. Mist lay thick and low, glittering like rain beneath the streetlamp. The light changed at the entrance, the mist now green. The cars crept forward until the line was empty. The mist shone red again, eddying, settling against the dark asphalt.
I had no idea when I should expect the delivery. From the couch, I watched the line build up and load. A cop parked next to the restrooms, to sleep or lie in wait for those who sped along the lonely straightaway that extinguished itself in the river.
The police car was gone by midnight, when a green truck approached the streetlamp. As it turned, its headlights shone through the front window, into my eyes. It drove past the house, into the woods above the river. A moment later, a small blue pickup followed.
My heart was speeding. With a notepad and pen, I followed the tracks over the brittle ice.
The rain had stopped, and with the cold, the mist had almost lifted. The moon, emerging from scattered clouds, hung over the river. Everything seemed amplified, vivid, washed in adrenaline—the late ferry run, the sound of the heavy engine across the water, the vessel’s square bulk folding back the current, the river dragging its stiff belly against the night.
Four barrel-chested men stood behind the truck, the lid of a wooden crate against its side, a scale on the tailgate. They wore baseball caps, dark hair to their shoulders. Without introducing myself, I told them about the scale near the house, surprised to find myself breathless.
“We have our own. It’s better,” one of them said. He was shorter and burlier than the others, his face lost beneath his visor.
“I’m supposed to use my father’s scale,” I repeated.
They had begun setting up, and as one, they paused and turned and looked at me, four faceless men bulked against the dark.
“We’re using our scale,” the shortest one repeated.
“Okay,” I conceded, then reconsidered. “But he wants me to weigh it.”
“We’re weighing it. You write it down.”
He asked for the money, and I hesitated. My cold fingers had a hard time taking the wad of bills from the front pocket of my jeans. He counted it and put it in his jacket.
The men began loading a small plastic crate. The weights on the scale were set at a hundred, and each time the bar balanced, they dumped the crate into a garbage bag and carried it to the battered, iced-over freezers in the woods. I stood by the scale, making a tick on the paper for each bag. The short man told me which number it was, and I confirmed it.
The truck’s shocks creaked, and my fingers ached as I tried to keep my records legible. The moon melted to a pale splotch low in the clouds, and occasional flurries blew in the wind. When I’d insisted on using the scale, I must have sounded like a boy, repeating my father’s orders. But there was no threat in their responses, simply firmness, as if they were commanding a child. Though I resented this, they spoke to me kindly, telling me what to do, asking me to hand them another garbage bag.
The last of the fish had been weighed out. The short man patted me on the arm and thanked me. The gesture seemed deliberate, reassuring. They climbed into their trucks and drove to the road, slowing at the edge of the asphalt before accelerating.
Flurries tumbled down. The ferry’s red and yellow lights moved above the water, slowing at the far shore, the clang of metal reaching me as if from a great distance.
This memoir was adapted from Deni Y. Béchard's new book Cures for Hunger (Goose Lane Editions).