Paul Vega
Fire

Eric’s stomach is smooth and flat and there’s a trail of hair there like on a normal person, but his thighs down to the tips of his toes are still ruddy and hairless, all the skin taut. His calves and feet have an almost molten complexion and they shine under the water like they’re waxed. He worries his body will always be this way, that his skin will always peel and turn bright red at the lightest scrub and burn under the touch of water or woman. But he scrubs hard. It’s been two weeks since they were in town, two weeks of clubbing king salmon to death and plucking roe from their bellies, and two weeks of watching coho spasm out their last breaths in bloody half arcs. And now Eric needs to get rid of the mess of blood and scales and sweat. So he scrubs hard. He scrubs hard and finds the fresh red layer beneath.

The water in the head steams because the engine of the boat has yet to cool and so there are only two shower temperatures: hot and scalding. Even in late July, Sitka is wrapped in tendrils of fog, chilled by winds that come down off Mount Edgecombe and ripple the ocean’s surface behind the breakwaters.

The head is tiny like on every fishing boat, nearly the exact size of a telephone booth, and here Eric’s glad he’s not big and lumbering like Captain John has become, and like his son Matt almost is and surely will be soon. He feels crowded by them and sees them everywhere, reflected even in the way the boat is crafted: high, with wide doorways, and the tallest bait shed in the fleet. When Eric gets the money from the settlement, the first thing he’ll do is buy this boat and make it his own. He’ll move the gurdies so he doesn’t have to stretch so far while he runs the gear. He’ll raise the level of the cockpit so when he pulls fish over the transom he doesn’t feel like a kid at a tall counter. He’ll make his deckhands adapt to his boat just like he’s been made to adapt on so many other boats.

He can hear John and Matt in the cabin talking loudly, constructing a list of groceries and chores. The plan is to make the town turn quickly and this will be the only afternoon Eric has to himself. He wants them to leave so he can glaze the fish, then climb down the ladder into the freezer that stretches starboard to port just behind the engine room. He could take a nap down there it’s so peaceful. He’s told John and Matt and they don’t believe him. Even other deckhands on frozen-at-sea trollers don’t get why he likes the freezer so much. But what is there to say? The cold suits him, and they have no idea what it’s like to live in his body.

Eric takes his towel from the rack and watches the water pool at his feet, russet colored and murky from the work, but not bloody. Not like that first time after leaving the hospital, thank god. Nothing could be worse than that first shower at home when blood and puss the color of strawberry jam, the viscosity of engine oil, ran down his legs settling at his ankles, stopping up the drain. And his girlfriend patted his thighs with a towel, pretending it was okay, pretending it didn’t smell like burned rubber and bile. “Baby, do you need my hand? Baby, would you like sweatpants?” But he knew it was over then, because even though he was walking on his own feet again and the skin on his toes had grown back over the bones, and even though the doctors promised his dick still worked right and that there would be no need for skin grafts there, and even though he saved the boy’s life (sometimes he wanted to scream that at her, at other people when he saw how they looked at him: I saved a life), even though all that had happened and things were improving, his girlfriend saw everything underneath the bandages. She saw his hairless thighs and how he bled between them, and nothing was the same after that.

The boat rocks gently as Eric dresses, the ties to the dock making a soft noise like an old man moaning. He takes an Oxycontin from his shaving kit and swallows. Captain John’s always on him to take his meds, but Eric doesn’t like them. He takes a five-milligram sometimes, or a ten on the really bad days when his feet throb just from the work of bracing himself on a pitching deck and he feels in his chest like he might shake apart.

After the fire, he lost a year to the pills. It wasn’t the pain, not exactly. He can work through the pain from the burns, he always has. But he lost a year to the haze the pills brought on, a year when the sharpness and rhythm went out of his world and then he was just high and useless. He went back to his parent’s house in Port Angeles and lived in the basement, sleeping on the mattress his younger brother had used as a teenager. It was stained with god knows what — beer and piss and mold from hot, moist summers being stored below ground. He tried to go to work with his father in the grocery’s butcher shop, but the pills made him clumsy, slow, and he cut himself on the third day, watching his own blood pool in a chunk of fatty roast beef while his father yelled, the words indistinguishable, only their tone cutting through the haze.

***

But things have changed for Eric. He’s working again now. He steps from the shower, puts on his boots and climbs from the fo’c’sle. He’s working again now and things are better, he thinks.

“Good to go?” John smiles and stretches the gloves over the sleeves of Eric’s snowsuit. The gloves work well in the freezer. They were made for cleaning deep fryers after all.

Eric nods. Inside the suit he’s already sweating.

“Sure you don’t want me to leave Matt to help?”

Matt shifts in the doorway. He glances up in the corner of the boat where the freezer monitor reads minus thirty-eight degrees. He wants no part of this work. Earlier in the season he even offered a percentage of his crew share to Eric if he would do all the glazing of the fish.

“Yeah, I’ll help if you want,” Matt says, which could be true, but Eric knows he’d complain the entire time and take breaks as soon as his feet went even a little numb and Eric would do most of the work anyway.

Matt is okay. It’s just that he plays too many video games and reads the bad sci-fi novels other fishermen leave behind in the cannery’s lobby. He keeps his ear buds in while fishing and spends their time jogging to the grounds scrolling through his smart phone even though there’s no Internet. All of which is fine. It’s just that he doesn’t want to fish, and there’s simply no room on a boat for someone like that. This family has no future in it. Eric knows it’s true. He knew it as soon as he made his first trip with father and son, and that was why he offered to buy the boat from John.

Eric climbs down the ladder into the boat’s freezer hold, looks up at John and Matt, and gives a thumbs up as best as he can with the large fryer gloves. He watches as the hatch cover slides over the gray, vaulted sky, sealing him off from the day in a thunderous clatter, and suddenly he is alone in the claustrophobic, icy space, the light the color of sulfur.

Eric wears snow boots and a mask, and within seconds there’s a layer of frost on his eyelashes bending them down like tree branches in a winter’s storm. He can only stand straight up below the hatch cover, but otherwise he moves in a crouched shuffle. He can’t see from side to side because of the mask and the snowsuit’s hood and the freezer is a wall of noise. The condenser, the fan, it’s like being inside some great engine and Eric is another piston at work. He removes the tarps and bin boards, goes to his knees, takes his place.

The glaze tank — nothing more than an old bathtub that John’s mother once used as a kitschy garden pot — is full of seawater and has a small heated coil at the bottom so the water doesn’t freeze. Eric takes a king salmon from the forward port bin, dunks it in the water for a few seconds, removes it and then props it against the base of the bin boards, repeating the process until he has fifteen lined up. He takes the first king propped against the bin board and dunks it in the tub again, but for a shorter amount of time, picks it back up and sets it in the forward starboard bin. He gets a rhythm, squats, kneels, rises, repeats, and soon all his muscles tense. He’s breathing hard, chest hot with frigid air, arms already tight.

After half a bin of glazing fish, he stops and has a drink from the bottle of whiskey he stores in the hold for just these occasions. The glazing water in the tub is the perfect temperature to chill the liquor, and it’s cold when it hits his tongue and hot by the time it settles in his stomach.

He’s fished all over, gillnetting and crabbing. His uncle is friends with some of the guys on the big crab boats that go to the Bering Sea, and he could work there if he wanted. When he was a teenager, there were even summers in Bristol Bay when Eric made twenty thousand dollars, and all he did was throw fish down into the hold, scrambling around on his hands and knees as the other deckhands picked pink salmon from the gillnet.

He’s done it all, but he likes trolling best. The fish are the cleanest, the freshest. It’s something he can be proud of. And the freezer, it’s like a bonus. It’s the only place where he doesn’t have to see any of himself; his body is at home in the insulated snowsuit and only the work and the pain and the fish and the numbing cold occupy his thoughts.

The numbness is the best.

Already he feels his feet turning to icy blocks, and moving is just lifting one leg up and setting it back down. There is no pain. Most people quit or take breaks, but he likes it. He likes not feeling the itching skin, the soreness between the joints, the throbbing down in the marrow of his metatarsals that rises all the way up to his head. He glazes another round of fish and then another and then another. He stops for whiskey between each round. He’s not trying to get drunk. He rarely does. It’s just part of his system.

He works. Fifteen more kings and then fifteen again. He’s shrouded in his own breath and the soft yellow light. He imagines the temperature gauge in the cabin. He sees it rising just from his body heat, his work. It actually happens. “You raised that thing five degrees while you were in there,” John has told him before.

An eighty thousand dollar freezer system working at near minus forty degrees and Eric still manages to warm it just from breathing, just from being. He’s proud of that. Maybe it’s not something to be proud of, but those are his lungs breathing and his muscles straining and his head steaming, making the compressor work a little harder. His body.

He works.

And then he’s done glazing. It hasn’t taken him more than an hour and he wishes there was more to do. He sits and drinks from the whiskey bottle and stretches out. When he buys the boat, he’ll upgrade the system even more. He’ll keep the freezer at minus forty-five, minus fifty. He’ll keep it so cold that his fish will freeze faster than anyone else’s in the fleet. John brags that his fish go from ocean to cleaned and frozen solid in an hour. Eric will do that in half the time. Where John gets six dollars a pound for his kings, Eric will get seven. When he buys the boat… he hopes that happens soon. It’s been almost two years since the fire and the company still hasn’t settled up yet.

A gas grill should never explode. That’s the foundation of his lawyer’s entire argument, and it’s so plainly true Eric knows it’s just a matter of time before his lawsuit is settled. Be patient. His lawyer keeps reminding him to be patient. Be patient, but Christ, two years?

He remembers the boy’s screams coming from the backyard. “Fire,” his friend’s son yelled, or maybe he didn’t. Maybe Eric yelled it. Eric moved fast, from the kitchen to the back porch and through the cross-hatched pattern in the lattice fence he saw an orange flame leap out of the grill towards the boy’s face. The flame died and the boy cowered and Eric leaned to turn the grill off. And then the whole world turned to fire. He could see nothing but a ball of flame and the outline of the boy crouching deep down in the middle of it. He covered the boy’s body with his own and they held each other in a fierce hug. There was screaming. He knows there was. There had to be. But the screams didn’t seem to come from their own mouths. They were more like an extension of the heat.

For a time there was no sound at all. Then there were voices. Shouting. Not his own. And then more screaming, this time clearly. It was the boy and then Eric’s cries rose and matched them. Eric could see again, and he lay against the boy, their legs intertwined. He tried to pull away but their feet were stuck together in a pool of melted rubber and flesh.

Later, they were cut out of their shoes. Their heads were shaved. Their bodies laid next to one another on gurneys where they shined nakedly under the hospital light.

Eric looks around at all the glazed salmon in the acrid cold and feels a heavy satisfaction in what he has done. He breathes slower, takes a pull from the whiskey, then another, closes his eyes and can see the fish dancing there too in soft, dark waves. He lies down. He stretches out. He isn’t going to sleep. He’s just taking a break.

He’ll buy the boat, he thinks. He’ll make it his own. And he’ll work here, in this dazzling cold, forever.

Paul Vega recently received a MFA in fiction from the University of Washington and his work has appeared in The Monarch Review and Pacifica Literary Review. He currently splits his time between work as a commercial fisherman in Southeast Alaska and a writing instructor in Seattle.