The Transplant's Tale
by Gary Parks
First, let me tell you that I'm not this way, I'm not a thief. I'm a plain American guy, a machinist who moved somewhere with his wife. What's wrong with that? I'd never busted into a garage before this, never once drug home the contents of another man's freezer. Before this, I hadn't used a crowbar since I was 13, when I helped my Uncle Ed up in Modesto split up a splintered old shed on his farm, a fire hazard. But I haven't touched a crowbar since, I swear, not until this last thing, this thing that got me mad. This fish of Fren Swenson's.
Fren's king salmon, to be exact.
I didn't break anything this time, though, except maybe a window latch. I just broke in.
You see, my wife Sondra and I and our newborn Cassie live in the Northwest now, a suburb of Seattle. I won't name the neighborhood because I don't want to be traced and harassed by locals, or snatched up by the police. The problem is, we're not from here. At least Sondra and I aren't. From. There's enough folded into that homey little word to last a lifetime, I'm finding out. We moved last winter from California, and here California stands for crack house gangs, Disneyland plastic, flash and glitz and the foulest kind of Hollywood fakiness. People used to give us dirty looks before we changed our plates, and yell things. "Drug dealers go home!" one silver-haired whiz shouted from his yard one day, a month after we'd arrived. We were lost, looking for a clinic in Fremont, back when Sondra had just started to show.
"That's quite a mask, Chief Seattle!" I yelled back, which made him grimace like he was about to spit. You wouldn't think I'd be quick like that with words being a machinist by trade, a blue-collar production worker, but don't ever judge a book by its cover these days. I'm only 25, and maybe I won't be on the production line all my life, who knows?
We were amazed. Californians got bashed on radio ads and T.V. every day, and the newspaper writers would try to outdo each other with new ways to hack at us transplants. "Throw the Blankety-Blanks Out," said one columnist. "Return South, Mickey Mouse," said another. Sondra and I would huddle in our little rented house and read the junk every week, cracking jokes and trying to laugh it off. But she'd grown huge, the baby was bumping around a lot, and I could tell she was wondering what we'd moved into.
It was Fren Swenson who pushed me over the edge. Fren's an old, friendly guy in a baseball cap""at least he looks that way in the picture beside his column. He writes a fishing spot for the sports page, "Toss Your Line," and I used to read him every week because the San Joaquin Valley, where I'm from, didn't have any salmon, or halibut, or cod, and I was curious. In California I could catch fish. I could get bass for the asking in Lake Kaweah and Pine Flat, and, best of all, native goldens in the high Sierras, glowing little trout found in a landscape of scratched orange rock and turquoise sky. But now I wanted to nail one of those big kings that Fren trumped so much about, and I'd already hatched a plan that maybe next summer I'd get an aluminum 14-footer and zip over to Point no Point and bag one. Even one would make a difference.
Then, in early July, Sondra so big that neither of us could believe the size of her, and her due date just two weeks away, Fren wrote the one that got to me. Got to us. It came with a picture of himself hefting a waist-high salmon by the gills. Fren's bushy eyebrows were raised, and his eyes shined like he'd just delivered the punch line to a joke. You could tell by where the article was at""page one Sports""that he'd scored bigger than normal. I read it to Sondra in the kitchen:
JUST LIKE THE GOOD OLD DAYS ON PUGET SOUND
by Fren Swenson
A recent outing to Neah Bay proved that there are some things about Northwest life that even hordes of invaders from Southern climes can't change.
We set out Thursday a.m. on the earliest Edmonds ferry, the quiet streets at this hour reminding me of the good old days on Puget Sound, days when you could drive without being stuck to the bumper of another car, often one wearing a license plate from smoggy Southern Cal. Like, not cool, you know. (Thought I'd try the lingo.)
By early afternoon we'd made it to Neah and installed ourselves comfortably at our favorite camp out that way, Windy Pines Park. Soon plopped old Silver Sounder in at Stuckey Bay Marina and got out beyond the buoy, fishing the tide rips with cut plug herring.
Within two hours, dear readers, we'd landed over a hundred pounds of salmon to take back to the freezer.
Smallest was a 20-pound landed by the beautiful wife, Viola. Her prize was a 25- pounder that she fought for long and hard, finally bringing him into the swoop of her worse half's net.
Mine ran 24 pounds and, the catch of the day, the 40-pound slab you see attached to my tired but happy hands in the photo. As the scripture says, "He who brings his own fish from the waters shall know bliss." Especially if it's a monster!
So, next time you get depressed about the way we're so rapidly losing the quality of life here in the Northwest, take to the sea! Californians haven't abducted our salmon yet!
"What are they afraid of?" Sondra asked, her nose wrinkled into the attack mode.
I shrugged like it was no big deal, but inside I was hotter than a fresh-poured casting. Fren hadn't written a word against Californians before, and now this.
"Maybe the only part of California they've seen is Disneyland," I said. "That would do it."
"I think we should just go back," Sondra said, wincing as she brought her front part around. "Sure, Fresno's boring, the summer's a scorcher, but we've got friends there, and family."
"I can get a ten times better job here than there," I said. "I'm learning the computers, Sondra, and the unions are stronger. It's a good place to advance." That had been the whole idea, to move to a place with better jobs than Fresno. That and to get the baby away from the Valley's pesticides and fertilizers. I guess they've done their damage to us. Maybe that's why I did what I did, because I'm damaged in some basic way. Overfertilized. Who knows?
"Plus," I went on, trying to be logical, a huge mistake right then, "we'd have to save again, to move. We can't leave just like that." I snapped my fingers loud, a sound like a thunderclap in the tiny kitchen. A thunderclap followed by horrendous silence. Sondra put her hands on the seat and lifted herself, shifting so she could look out the window instead of at me. I could tell she wouldn't say anything else.
See, when you're not really from a place, you can do the strangest things. Take that very night, for example. Sondra suggested that I get out of the house and take a drive""I think she wanted to be alone. So I went, though I probably shouldn't have, her sitting there with a planted smile and a bulge like a house under her sweatshirt.
I didn't know where I was going, but I stopped automatically at the first phone booth I saw and began slapping through the pages, don't ask me why. There it was. Swenson, F. and V, 20650 Balcomb Street. Back in the car I fished out the map. It was a few miles north of where we lived, a nicer part of town. I turned on the radio and cruised in that direction, wondering what I was up to.
When I rounded the corner and saw Fren's house and his detached garage, I knew. An almond-colored motor home the size of a locomotive sat in front of the yard, and behind the motor home a birdbath stood in the lawn with two plastic deer beside it, one grazing, the other lifting its head with a blissful grin, as if the traffic along Balcomb made a satisfying sound for deer. The house itself was a huge, one-story spread of simple lines done in homey browns. A covered walkway ran to the garage, and in front of the garage sat the Silver Sounder, Fren's boat, something I envied in a huge way, an off-white Bayliner with downriggers reaching out and a massive bow tilted up like a man's big chest. I scanned the yard for a route, found it on the third pass, and left, squelching the desire to honk or shout or otherwise raise hell, which would have been a stupid move since I'd be back that weekend.
When I got home I didn't say anything about my plan, but I felt better and so did Sondra. Pretty soon we were pulling out tapes and dancing, Sondra dancing too in deep, slow swoops, shaking her hair to the drum. We even managed some careful lovemaking later on. Afterward, drifting off to sleep like a boat getting loose, her arm under my neck, the baby in its big sac nestled against me, the last thing I thought about was my plan.
I've got a knack for when I can pull something off or when I can't. A good machinist has to have that. I remember considering college, for example""dad wanted me to go get an ag degree so I could come back and save the ranch, but I'd thought, nah, can't do that. I'd landed a job at Fresno Metalwork instead, started working up. I didn't want to drive around in a dusty Chevy truck all day opening and closing irrigation gates, studying half-grown fields to figure out how close they'd come to next year's bills. Leave that for my little brother Allen, who doesn't get so bothered by things. Sure enough, Allen did it, and he's back there pushing fourteen hour days to make it work. I saw twenty-pound sacks of our spuds stacked waist high in a QFC on Greenwood one day and it made me homesick in a big way, not so much for mom and dad, who are mad at me for moving, but for Al. We didn't even buy any.
This move to Seattle, on the other hand, I knew we could pull off, though a couple of angles I hadn't figured. And this last plan, with Fren. I knew I could handle that too. In his column he often mentioned the freezer in his garage where he kept his salmon until he smoked them. The garage wouldn't have a security alarm, would it? Fren went fishing every single weekend, or so he claimed in his column, and he loved to brag that his wife went too. So I'd find a way to the back and pop in with my crowbar. The freezer wouldn't be locked, of course. I'd be the proud possessor of my first king salmon. My first catch in the Pacific Northwest.
Crazy? Yes. But it seemed so possible in a technical sense. So correct. It's like you're figuring a problem on an x-y plane when suddenly""of course! ""there's a z-axis, another dimension. A freezer containing a fish.
On Saturday evening I told Sondra I needed to shop for some tune-up parts, that I knew a store that stayed open late, and she said great, go, just call and check because the little girl's been squeezing up high. The little boy, I winked, kissing her good-bye. I'd already stashed the stuff in the car""crowbar, gloves, big plastic sack to put him in, and a section cut from a leg of Sondra's panty hose for a mask, a pre-pregnancy size that I'd dug from the bottom drawer so she wouldn't miss it.
Fren's boat and motor home were gone, his house dark except for the porch light throwing a mustard glaze over the lawn. I parked beside the fir tree and checked the neighborhood""not a human in sight in all those wide windows""then slipped out the passenger side and rolled under the boughs. Within seconds I'd pulled the panty hose over my face, tucked the crowbar in my belt, and gone scrambling down the fence line on my hands and knees.
A narrow opening beside the garage took me to the back yard, where I made my first mistake""I circled out into the dark instead of sticking to the garage. Just as it occurred to me that I was walking way too fast for someone wearing a panty-hose mask, something hard cut underneath and dropped me like a load of clods. I yanked off the mask. Under my feet lay a plastic body, small and smooth with dim white spots. I found some handholds and brought it close.
The handholds were ears. I was squinting into the happy face of a plastic deer.
Usually I don't express my anger violently. But when I saw those lavish Bambi eyes, that sweet plastic deer smile, it triggered something. I was somewhere else for a while""like high noon on Mars""and I was trying to stomp that smile as deep into Fren's yard as I could. Nothing mattered for a few gruesome seconds but me and the satisfying slap of my tennis shoe on plastic. When I finished I stood over it trembling, first excited, victorious, then more and more depressed, my breath scraping back and forth like a file on an iron edge. Finally, I came to my senses and scooted to the garage to find what I really needed""a small, square window, waiting to be popped.
The window came open like the flap of a Graham cracker box, no sound, no alarm. I stuck the crow bar in Fren's flowerbed and peered into the dark square for a moment, heartbeat hammering into my gloves. A couple of long breaths, and I was in.
At first I thought I'd crawled onto a shelf, so I hung there and felt around. The last thing I needed was a huge clanging avalanche into the garage that would bring the whole block. But it felt too wide for a shelf, an arm's length across, and it didn't budge when I pushed down. Then I felt the cold through my sleeves, and the low, electrical hum. I couldn't believe my luck. I'd crawled onto the top of Fren Swenson's freezer.
When I rolled over and raised the lid, a light came on and fog gushed from the box. I looked at him through the mist, sucked some air, and looked again. I was gazing into the wide, startled eye of the largest fish I'd ever seen.
Wrapped in clear plastic, he stretched lengthwise down the freezer as long as one of my legs, nearly as wide as my waist. He was darker than I thought he'd be, an industrial gray glazed all over with a light frost. The black hooked jaw made him look ancient and stubborn, and his eye had a feisty gleam, even in death. Other things were stacked in the freezer""other, lesser fish, white packages of meat, bright containers of Cool Whip, Tater Tots""but this salmon rode the surface of it all, front and center, his tail curled sideways slightly in a classic leaping pose. The King. And he was mine. I slipped my gloved hands under him and lifted until his frozen body clunked my chest. We stood there, embraced, his tail pressed like a shovel blade on my thigh. Mine.
Then, just as I bent to slide him into the plastic sack, a phone rang behind me in the garage.
The sound hit like a hard splash, a bubble-bursting jangle that knocked me forward a couple of steps. I wheeled with the fish, confused, and looked around desperately. My mind had somehow switched to Sondra, the fact that she might be having the baby, and I wanted that phone. I saw tools and gauges and dim paint cans in the light from the open freezer, wood scraps against the wall, an outboard on a sawhorse, but no phone. It rang again""another shot of panic""but this time I spotted it and bounded across the garage with the salmon in one arm.
"Yes!" I answered, still fully expecting Sondra.
"Who the hell is this?" a man's voice bellowed.
"Johnny Johnson," I said. At least I had the sense to make up a name. The stupidity of answering the phone had hit me. The fish tried to slip in his plastic wrapper, but I clenched him that much harder.
"Maybe I got the wrong number, then," the voice said, calming down. It was a rough, throaty man's voice, with a crusty edge that spoke of old age, poker games, tons of friends at the coffee shop. I could almost smell the cigar smoke in the shadowy garage, could nearly see the baseball cap sporting the name of a tackle company. Suddenly I knew who it was.
"Sorry there Johnny," the man said, with a wheezy chuckle. "You'd think I'd get my own damn number right. I'm trying to call the answering machine. The wife wants the messages, you know. We're camped over here at Fort Flagler, fishing Mid-Channel Bank."
"How're they hitting up there?" I asked instinctively.
"Damn good. Landed an eighteen this afternoon. The kings're moving down." He waited for me to say something, but I kept myself quiet this time. "Anyway," he said, "pardon me, Johnny."
"Are you Fren Swenson, the writer?" I asked.
"Hey, how'd you know that?" He sounded pleased.
"You're the guy who caught that forty-pound king last week, big picture in the paper?"
"I'm the guy!" He nearly sang it.
"I'm in your garage, Fren, and I've got that fish in my arms. I'm going to steal it."
"What's that?" he spluttered. "What did you say?"
"I'm in your garage. I'm taking that big fish home with me. He's mine now, Fren."
"What . . . what?" he barked, his voice slipping up an entire octave in outrage. "Why in hell are you doing that?"
"So you can learn to live without this," I said, the first thought that came to my head. I rustled the plastic for effect, the salmon glaring at me like a muffled hostage. My right side was frozen from clenching him, but I managed to hold on.
"You'd better clear the hell out of there, you punk," Fren said in a grim, measured voice. "You so much as touch my spare troller and you're a dead duck."
"Sorry, Fren. I'm not taking anything else. But the fish is mine. You'll never catch us."
There was a long pause, and I almost hung up, because I thought he might be waving down a cop, or yelling at his wife to report me from a different phone. "Listen," he finally said, in a milder voice, "I want to tell you something about that king, young man. It's got a special value to me. A sentimental value, I guess you could say."
"It's just a fish," I said, but I actually winked at the salmon as I said that.
"But listen," he sounded urgent. "It wasn't me who caught it. I took some literary license on that, all right? That's Viola's fish, my wife's. Biggest she ever caught in her whole life. But I made it me who caught it for the sake of the column, the picture and all. There's a lot of young-buck writers out there fishing who'd like to take over my spot, let me tell you, and it's been a while since I landed a monster like that." He was silent for a moment, and I couldn't help it, I laughed out loud, which made Fren squeal: "I'm calling the cops, you thieving piece of scum!"
"Tell Viola she has my sympathy," I said calmly. "But the fish is mine. I've got a wife to consider too, Fren. And she's mad at you. You are on our list, forevermore. Bad karma."
"Because we just moved here a few months ago. Guess where from."
Fren was quick, I'll grant him that much. "California," he moaned instantly. Then he hung up.
I had to leave fast because he'd be calling the cops. But I had the phone, and I knew I should call. I put the king on the floor and punched the lighted buttons as fast as I could. Sondra answered in one ring.
"Where have you been?" she said in a desperate voice. "I was about to call an ambulance. Get home! It's happening! My water broke five minutes ago!"
I got the fish, but I left everything else""the panty hose mask, the crowbar in the flowers, the damaged deer with my footprints all over it. It would give the investigators something to do. Luckily none of Fren's neighbors were looking because I dashed through the corner door and sprinted the front yard with the salmon cradled in my arms. I threw him on the back floorboard and spun out of there like the bandit that I was, way over the speed limit all the way home. The only policeman I saw, though, was across the divider speeding the other way with lights and siren on. Heading toward Fren's house, I presume.
I forgot about him for nearly a day, of course, and when I remembered I snuck a few minutes to leave their bedside and go down to the hospital parking lot. He'd sagged into the floorboard a bit, and his skin had gone spongy, like a wet football. I went up and told her""told them""that I was going to run home and feed MacGruder, and she said fine, we'll be all right. It had been a six-hour labor until our little girl came. I've never seen anyone so brave as Sondra that day, so strong. She nearly squeezed my fingers off. The nurses said she'd acted like it was her third or fourth child instead of her first.
Hobson's Sporting Goods on the way home sold styrofoam boxes long enough to hold him, and I bought four bags of ice at the corner Minit-Mart. There I kept him, in that box in our little garage, wide-eyed, staring at me suspiciously from under the glistening ice, which I changed every couple of days until the freezer arrived from Sears. The freezer took a lot of explaining, but I finally convinced Sondra that we'd need to store up more food, be more economical now that there were three of us. She hasn't been curious enough to dig down to the fish yet, or if she did she hasn't said anything, which is fine. Some things man and wife just can't explain to each other.
So it all came off swimmingly, as they say around here. He's in the freezer now in my garage, stiff as bronze, and there he's going to stay. When I think about it too much I still can't believe I did it, and I'm not sure why, but it made me feel better about living here, that's for sure. To tell the truth, I've sort of lost the big urge to go catch one of my own. I can live without it for a while, let me put it that way.
I must admit I did one more spiteful thing to Fren. One day I stopped at the Mickey Mouse store at Westlake Mall downtown and bought a tiny Mouseketeers hat, toddler size. At home I got the King out and propped him on top of the freezer with cinder blocks so he was swimming toward me upright. Then I tied the ears to his head and took some snapshots. It was a wacky sight and I laughed the whole time, this fierce, gaping fish with little spike teeth coming at me territorially while Mickey Mouse ears stuck out of his head like radar dishes. After the photos came back I mailed some off to Fren, anonymously of course.
You know what the old guy did? He ran one of the pictures of my fish in the paper. The black ears showed up clearly, but the King himself was kind of fuzzy and hard to see. Fren told his readership the tragic tale of the theft, including a vivid description of the plastic deer I'd brutalized. Then he wrote a couple of nostalgic paragraphs about the loss of the Puget Sound lifestyle, the defacement of nature by invaders, and how one of the last meaningful undertakings for a true man""fishing""might easily vanish from the Northwest. He went off into ramblings about ancient Suquamish fishermen with their long cedar canoes and bone hooks, claiming they were his forbearers. I don't know how he squeezed all of that out of a stolen salmon with Mickey Mouse ears, but I have to admire his courage for running the picture. It's the kind of thing that might've backfired on the Sports page. Fren didn't bring up the fact that the fish had been Viola's in the first place.
By the way, I weighed that salmon one day when Sondra and the baby were out shopping. We have a good set of digital scales that we got for a wedding present, very accurate. I weighed it several times, first checking my weight and then standing on the scales holding him. That fish doesn't weigh 40 pounds. It came up 30, every time. I know it had to be cleaned, but come on, Fren. Ten pounds of guts? I'll have to write him a postcard about it, just to let him know that I know, or maybe even send a letter to his editor expressing my outrage.
Our baby, though, is a different story. She's all here, I'm happy to say""her mom's calm face, my black cap of hair""and every inch is perfect. She came into the world at seven pounds, ten ounces and she's growing steadily. She gives us plenty to live for, plenty to do. Cassandra is her name, Cassandra Rae, and she fills up our days. We call her Cassie. She's a native here""Swedish Hospital, Seattle""and she seems to like everything, even the rain.
Chances are pretty good that she's going to stay.