For a while I was staying in a converted tenement east of Silver Lake that smelled like maple syrup. Upstairs, directly above my unit, there was a textile shop that operated twenty-four hours a day. I would hear machinery at all hours and the workers never seemed to leave the building.
I was dreaming of fish each night. A green-blue tinted coral reef, a shiver through the water, a cold rip, and the fish would all go into little epileptic seizures. The dreams confirmed my recent series of failures; they abided them.
I’d been having trouble getting work, not just as a musician, which was work I knew, but any kind of work. I had just spent eight months at Salinas County Correctional for possession, up until then the only other thing I knew how to do. In prison the counselors had this theory. They pushed on you that you had to believe things would change before they did. But I had maintained complete disbelief at how everything had soured, which seemed like the same thing, just inverted on its head. At Salinas I’d sit on my bed for hours and run through scales in my mind, imagining the neck of a guitar from my old collection. When I did this I felt better. As long as I thought I was practicing I could pretend that generally things were improving. I’d pretend to play along with some transistor radio leaking music through my cell wall, or I’d sing the modes quietly and close my eyes and imagine the stretches my fingers needed to make. My fingers knew the positions instinctually at that point, flatting and raising the thirds, fourths, and sevenths by a small bend of the finger, the cup of my palm shifting positions on the neck of the guitar.
I’ve recorded all over the West Coast, mostly session work. I’m not someone most people would know by name, though they might recognize some pedal steel glissando of mine, some Telecaster riff here or there.
Charlie Parker used to practice his saxophone in prison like that – without the actual instrument. He’d run over the modes in his head, soloing over the changes to “Koko” and “Ornithology” with his eyes closed, the sound running through his brain stem, rippling up through the gray matter, piercing the cortex the heroin had lit up. Some record rep would bail him out for a show, or a recording date, and he’d play better than before he’d pawned his sax and ended up high and in prison. It was because he could do what I was doing: run over his chops without the physical appendage of his Selmer horn. After the show they’d sometimes pay him in heroin. He’d fly for a while, wander the city, maybe score some more. Next thing he knew his horn was back at the pawnshop and he was in jail again. I’d taken my own notions of Parker too seriously. I’d had to in Salinas. But when I got out, all he amounted to in my life was a dead man.
When I first got out of Salinas I called the contacts: studios, a few musician friends. Most of my messages went unanswered. If I got a call back it was to let me know they were thinking of me. But that was the last call I’d get. In my short time away, I’d lost all connection to these people. After a while I even considered hanging around outside the studios, offering my services for fifty bucks here or there, like the wash-ups, the holdovers. Move from place to place like a watch salesman.
I even tried driving an ice cream truck, once I realized I was no longer a commodity. They don’t screen for a criminal record when they interview you. What I learned was that in bad neighborhoods you can sometimes barter all kinds of things for a Crème Royale, or a Swirlie, a Joystick, or a Pops-A-Lot. You can get a vial of meth or a small rock of crack for a couple of Swirlies, for instance. I had a problem with the availability of the drugs. I had a problem with the scum in the neighborhoods I had to canvas. I don’t trust children, either. And I hated the jingle the PA blasted: a mind-fucked medley of Pop Goes the Weasel and Greensleeves. They didn’t let you change the song. Between everything else and that jingle, I lasted a week on the job.
So eventually my parole officer, Gerard, set me up with a fishing rig in Santa Barbara. Gerard liked me – he knew I hadn’t done anything much worth doing time for. Like a couple of other men I knew at Salinas, I got caught up in mandatory sentencing laws. Gerard sent me to Henry, a friend of his who owned a fishing boat. I started working for him and the fish dreams began. Henry’s boat, The Castanet, would go out for several days, a week, at a time. I usually spent my days off at home, ordering take out and reading the paper, or listening to the weather forecast to see what my week looked like, thinking about fishing as a way of life. I’d given up on the guitar. Though I could have bought one soon enough, I didn’t want one around reminding me. Instead I began to read up on the fishing business at the library. I figured I needed to do a good job, even if it meant cleaning up after fish for now. I had this crazy idea that after a time I might even get my own boat, start my own business. I even thought of a name for my boat. I’d call it the Donna Lee, after the Charlie Parker tune.
The job on Henry’s boat involved mostly menial tasks. I gassed the engine up before we went out, washed down the gunnel and deck. I scraped out the bog and put everything away at the end of the day. I did what no one else wanted to do, did whatever they told me to do. By the time I’d spent a few weeks working I had calluses on my hands and feet, and the initial soreness in my back had left. The crew consisted of me, Henry, his son Jack, and Victor, a middle-aged man from Mexico City who cleaned, cooked, and worked for them for a couple of years. The Castanet was a thirty-eight-footer Henry claimed had come over from Finland. On good outings we brought back enough yellowfin to pay out what I considered decent enough. I was paid less of a percentage than Victor and Jack, but it was work. I figured I was lucky to be on this old boat, making any kind of living. Henry said that he was the last of the tuna boats in Southern California. By then most of the local tuna boom had moved to the western Pacific. Most of the canneries had also left, finding cheaper labor and less regulation in other parts of the world. Henry and Jack knew these were the final days for this kind of fishing. Henry said he could make more money driving a cab, and at that, in LA, where everyone had a car. His son Jack talked about getting out as well, finishing his marine biology degree, though I didn’t believe he ever would. When it came down to it, neither of them knew any other living.
Then one morning when I showed up, Henry said not to worry about bringing out the nets. His eyes always looked alert – as if he was constantly taking in all the things around you – but today they looked nervous. Nothing more. He kept glancing up at the sky and around at the other boats. I figured it was because of the weather, that maybe he’d heard of something blowing up quickly. It was easy to get blindsided by a squall this time of the season.
We went out and the light of day quickly went grayer and darker, and after a couple of hours you couldn’t see anything but the monotonous knitting of water.
We’d been out about five hours when I saw a cutter’s lights quite a bit away from us. As the lights came closer a lifeboat launched off to the other boat’s starboard and began to come toward us. By then Henry was on the radio and Jack was slowing the boat. The lifeboat tipped up against us. I saw Henry wave to the man who tossed over the rope.
He was a tall thin man, standing at the front of the boat, and a dozen or so Asian men sat huddled together behind him. Henry and the man from the cutter made the exchange within five minutes. The men – Vietnamese usually, Victor later told me they’d been doing this for some time now – were all drawn and bent and wore gray muscle shirts that exposed their ribs through the armholes. By this time of night it was cold, and these shivering men seemed to me what vulnerability would look like if you could put bones in it. When they were loaded down to our boat, I glanced over and saw the man from the cutter hand Henry an envelope. Henry opened it and shuffled the notes inside. I don’t know how much money was there, but it clearly beat the pissant netting we normally did. The man said something in broken English about the weather, and Henry looked around and said, “Seen worse.”
Then Jack told me to come with him as he led the Vietnamese men down to the fish hatch. The fish hatch stank, but it was safe enough, with room for all those men. We loaded them in without any trouble, and The Castanet made its way back to Santa Barbara. Later, Henry called Victor and me over. “Think of it as a quarterly bonus,” he said. “Or a stock split or something.” He didn’t smile as he said this. He counted out seven hundred dollars more than our usual pay, for each of us. We took the money without looking at each other. When we docked it was dark. A van was waiting for the men.
We repeated the routine a couple of times each month. I learned that the refugees were usually Vietnamese, from some Thai settlement. Victor told me that they’d paid in cash. We were the last leg of what I imagined was a pretty long and terrible trip. Statler was the name of the tall man who stood each time at the front of the lifeboat. He had some connections on shore with hustlers who looked for the smaller commercial operations, like Henry’s; those they figured would go along with something like this, those they figured were going under otherwise.
Sometimes we’d get twenty of these men, other times ten or twelve. Each time a van would be waiting at the dock with this insignia on the side: Happyland Day Care and Special Transport Services. Henry liked to have Victor and then me around so the boat looked staffed in case the Coast Guard pulled up and started asking questions. Henry justified it all by saying, “We’re helping bring these oppressed persons to the free world.” To hear him say it was kind of sad, like he’d repeated this awkward, stiff line in his mind so many times he believed it, as far as those few words would go. Like using the word persons alone was a kind of red flag, I thought. It was as if he was his own politician. He didn’t go into it any deeper than that. He couldn’t.
Because I knew what it was like to face the shit end. Because you make do, and then you make do with less, and then when you run out of anything to make do with, you start clawing. And when it gets worse than that, you blame the nearest artery, you go for the closest throat. This smuggling business seemed like a giant throat Henry had finally gone at and now clutched. Jack always put on an act of being on top of it all, that he was smarter than his father. But at the end of the day, I could see the same look in his eyes.
On one of my days off, I heard on the radio that a storm front was coming up deep southwest of Mexico. They’d given it a tropical storm rating, said it might hit us pretty hard if it picked up speed but that it was too early to tell. It was a few days away. I realized I paid attention to the weather now. Then the station played a song I’d done some pedal steel guitar work on. In retrospect I might have taken the combination to mean something. I didn’t at the time.
Several days later we were coming back in from a few days’ netting. The fish hatch was full; it had been a pretty good outing, so we could afford to come back a day early. We were about five hours away from the coast. I was cleaning up and looking forward to an extra day free when I saw the familiar cutter. Then the lifeboat dropped and came toward us. Victor spat into the water. I glanced over at Jack and he said, “What of it? Pop figured we could squeeze them in. Consolidate.”
I must have made a face. Jack said, “Smile. It’s no different from the other times. We just milk the cash cow twice in one pail this time.”
Statler’s lifeboat pulled up and knocked against us. He stood with ten men huddled behind him. A fine rain drilled down like sand blasting. My face burned as I watched the lifeboat’s cutter off two hundred yards from us.
Like I said, the fish hatch was full, but Henry and Jack had cleaned out a space in the engine room. Jack had me go with him and lead the men down.
No matter how cold it got above deck, the heat in the engine room would break a sweat out of you the moment you stepped down into it. The air smelled thick from burning oil. Jack brought the men over to a small hold with a latching door. The hold was so small it would barely contain these ten men if they lay still and flat against each other. Usually we stored spare nets and chains there, things you could stack and bend and twist. It was cleaner than the fish hatch, though, now that they’d emptied the gear from it. A bulge of conduit and some electrical taped cables wrapped in canvas ran along the interior wall and led to the fuse box on the other side. One of the men kept repeating something quietly, maybe a prayer, and Jack said, “All right pal, you ain’t making this any easier.” I could see that he was as nervous as I was. The men hesitated, stood shifting, muttering.
“I already told you it ain’t gonna get any easier waiting,” Jack said. One of the men said something else in Vietnamese.
Jack said, “No shit.”
Then the same man climbed inside the hold. I don’t know what he had said, but the others followed.
“You think they’ll be all right in there?” I asked Jack.
“I never heard the gill nets complain,” he said. “I’ll tell you what though, Ben: You want to climb in there, we’ll make you special UN monitor the trip back.”
“You know I’ve been on parole,” I said.
“Parole’s nothing but a leash anyway,” he said, and then he didn’t say anything after that.
I followed Jack as we climbed the stairs. When he opened the hatch the sky above us looked like a void. It wasn’t gray or white or black or blue. It was as if everything had been leached from it.
By then the boat had already turned back toward Santa Barbara. Henry was up behind the wheel, talking on the radio. He hung it up, then picked up the plastic bag with the money in it and called Victor and me over.
Though most of the sky had turned dark gray by then, there were gold crests off in the distance. Then even they dissolved. The ride back got rough – these low clouds sank to the rise of the waves. I’d never seen anything like it in any of the times we’d gone out. The rain started to fall in sheets and the waves began to lift the boat. Jack told me to pray the waves didn’t lift and start breaking. Once they break, that’s when you worry, he said, but he already looked worried. We harnessed ourselves to the safety rigging. I could smell oil burning off from the pumps, which gave the rain a smoky taint and I thought about the men lying against each other below.
Gusts of wind and water slammed us and at one point something hit me and the harness lifted and I dangled in the air, swinging back and forth. We rose with a wave, then tipped. Everyone looked shadowy, like paper puppets swinging around the deck. I could hear myself yell out involuntarily, not any words really, just a scream that grated against my throat.
The harness cramped around my waist, cutting under my left side, under the ribs. I opened my eyes. We, up on deck, strapped in like this, looked like novices in some trapeze act. It was enough to make you roll around, go into little rages of laughter as the boat groaned and sent you flying, grabbing onto and slipping off of anything you had hold of. I saw myself at a store in Riverdale selling off my guitar collection, saw myself outside Max’s Guitar City on LaBrea, doing the same thing with another, hoping no one I knew saw me there. Even musicians who are doing badly don’t sell their instruments. You have to go lower than that. Then I saw myself bringing in my ’59 Telecaster at the Triple R pawnbrokers, my last guitar, the one I swore I’d never let go. Which is why I supposed I was hallucinating when I saw fireworks. Little blue electrical currents began spidering their way out of the lamps and over the side of the boat down to the water, popping and hissing for a few seconds in such a way that I could see suddenly Jack’s lit face. He was weeping with his hands covering it. The image came like a strobe effect, just a temporary flash with him like that, frozen in my mind’s eye.
After the lamps blew, it was completely dark. The knocking about went on for a while – maybe an hour or two – and I just went with it, hung limp in my straps and felt gravity spin. And when the weather did calm, I could see the sun coming up to the east, behind the city lights. I realized we’d been out longer than I’d thought. Then, later, the Coast Guard passed and put their beam on us. Henry waved them off and I figured they left us alone because there probably were other boats in worse shape than ours. And as the Coast Guard’s cutter pulled away Henry looked like he’d forgotten to mention something, and then I heard him moan. It was a small, insignificant kind of moan – one you might make if you’d locked your keys in the car, though Henry looked more confused than his moan allowed. He went to the hatch, undid the door, and disappeared below deck. Jack and I followed. When we reached the bottom of the stairs and saw Henry, what had happened began to clarify.
He stood below in a half-foot of water. He was unlatching the storage door as Jack and I came down. He was muttering like a crazy man. As the small door opened water gushed out and onto Henry.
We pulled the bodies out. Their faces were gray, like clay before it’s fired in a kiln. They had torn at each other as the air ran out and left only desperation in the hold. Or maybe the electricity, those sparks I’d seen on deck, had shorted out on them. It looked as though they’d bloodied their fingers on the door and then on each other.
We laid the bodies on the floor and Jack just stood and stared down at them, the flooded water washing over their faces. The hull made a new creaking sound. Over it you could hear Henry muttering, and if you blurred the sounds of the words he used he might have been talking in another language, or speaking in tongues.
Then he said this one thing, “What am I gonna do with ten dead Chinamen?” and it was as if something about the words started bouncing around in his head. He repeated it the rest of the trip back. He said it as we brought the bodies up on deck, and while we stood staring at them laid out like the garbage we’d sometimes get caught in the nets, he said it over and over – as if he were cinched to the words, as if a lock on his mind couldn’t come untumbled. And then even later, once we’d rolled them over the side of the deck and dumped them into the ocean, he continued to say it as if their bodies were still there, as if they hadn’t just dropped in the water and bobbed for a minute in the foam the bow cut before disappearing out of sight. Victor was praying quietly, in these quick Catholic whispers, crossing himself, shaking his head. At one point Jack told him to shut up, but Victor ignored him. All the while Henry kept repeating, “What am I gonna do with ten dead Chinamen?”
When we docked, I walked off with Victor and left Henry and Jack on the boat. Jack was looking at this dad, perhaps trying to figure out how to hold him together when it came time for that. His dad didn’t look like he wanted to get off the boat ever again. Victor wasn’t talking, and I split from him the moment we landed on the wooden gangway.
I walked with a quick step and tried not to lose the smoothness of my gait, tried not to look like I was walking too fast, like I did at Salinas. I saw guys there walk at a near-run and you wouldn’t know it. It’s how their body shifted as each foot touched the pavement. I turned and went inside a little bodega that had a couple of tables behind a dirty glass wall that faced the piers, a makeshift cafe. I sat down and looked through the window. I saw Henry’s boat docked, the water now calmed. I saw Jack come out from behind the mast and toss a large rope over to the other side of the deck. I didn’t see Henry. I thought about how stupid the name The Castanet was for a boat, how easy a name. I thought about the name of my boat, The Donna Lee, the boat I’d never own now.
Then I thought about all the better names. All these tunes Charlie Parker played would make good boat names. Not just Donna Lee, but Koko, Ornithology, Symphony Sid, Bluesology, or how about Thriving on a Riff…. How about that one? As I thought this through, I felt as if I’d resolved some kind of issue. Then the list of complications returned and ran through my mind. Those Vietnamese men’s bodies coming in, washing up. Though anyone could blame it on the storm, a shipwreck, something like that. And I’d broken parole, though that didn’t really feel so bad. I ordered a coffee and a couple of eggs; some toast and black beans. It was already beginning to be a hot, dry morning. I could smell the clean air that the rain had brought after washing out the built-up smog, the haze normally trapped by the hills. By the time my food came I had run through the complications and decided on a few possibilities. I’d go to the Triple R’s and see if they had my ’59 Telecaster. I still had the ticket back at the apartment and a wad of cash in a can under my bed. Then maybe take a trip far enough to get away from the smell of that hull – Chicago, New York. I could take my chances. Memphis, New Orleans, the Florida Keys. Then I thought I might try to find my way farther than that.