The Midwest |

Stand by to Disembark

by Vanessa Blakeslee

The day after a few of the ship’s factory workers pulled a joke on him, Crazy Paul flipped out and beat up a table with a gaff. Rumor was that the army had found Paul mentally unstable after too many tours in the Middle East and let him go—how many tours was too many was what Quentin wanted to know, but didn’t ask. The running joke about Crazy Paul amongst the crew was that he believed the little rabbit tattoo high on his neck whispered things into his ear.

Dang, their crew leader, sent Paul up on deck for a time out. At lunch break Crazy Paul told them that he’d been wandering around to clear his head when he happened to pause outside the wheelhouse.

“We’re not going to off-load in Dutch Harbor,” Paul said, rubbing his neck. “I overheard the Captain talking.” Everyone within earshot leaned toward Paul, cursing and barraging him with questions. “Will you listen?” Paul said, blinking and stuttering. He clenched his fork, adjusted his hardhat. He’d scrawled U.S. ARMY on the back in slanted block letters, despite his discharge.

“The company’s planning to off-load at sea. That means we’re going to have to fish another trip before Cascade lets anyone off. Another three months.”

“Bullshit,” Quentin said. “That’s breach of contract.”

“How else you gonna get off this ship if they don’t? Cascade Fishing gonna fly in a helicopter just for you?” Paul wagged his head, shoveled a bite, kept talking as he chewed. “It’s an old trick, I’m telling you. Companies do this all the time.”

Jason, Quentin’s bunkmate, stared, chopsticks hovering above his noodles. Quentin leaped up, climbed to the wheelhouse, and rapped on the door. Thirty seconds, and finally the captain swung open the door; it bounced against the wheelhouse.


“I hear you’re not letting us off,” Quentin said.

“What you gonna do if I don’t?”

“There’s at least a dozen other guys who have contracts up, same day as mine. You want a lawsuit?”

The captain flung back his head and laughed.

Quentin kept talking. His words slurred, his brain snapping and crackling like aluminum foil in a microwave. Fatigue—this argument sounded nothing more than a drunk’s speech. When was the last time he’d had a drink? No idea. Did none of the men who wanted off have the balls to raise hell like he was? Why not? Why was he raising hell? Did Crazy Paul even know what he was talking about? Or was this lack of restraint his own unraveling? He heard himself saying, “You’ve got to get me off this ship. I won’t make this easy for you.”

“Don’t worry, you’ve made that clear,” the captain said. He slammed and latched the door.

Quentin climbed back down below. The men were scraping their plates, exiting from lunch. “So how’d your little talk go with the Captain?” said Marcel, brushing past too closely, just to annoy him. “Did you run to him, make a big stink?” Quentin fought the urge to pick up a gaffe and beat the nearest bench or beam, like Crazy Paul had. “And what if I did?” he said, Marcel’s face just inches from his. “Or what, is that crazy? No one ever call the Captain on this bullshit?”  Marcel laughed, said, “Nope,” and slinked off. Was everyone laughing at him?

Quentin resumed his station and started sorting fish. He and Jason faced a giant mound from the nets dropped in earlier. A few big halibut, weighing about a hundred pounds each, had wedged like boulders among the catch, mostly atka mackerel. The men threw out the halibut; by law they couldn’t take them. Quentin used to try and save as many as he could, sprint up on deck and heave them overboard. “Let Cascade Fishing breach contract,” he said. He was chucking fish onto the cutter table so hard that every so often one skidded off. “When I get back, I’ll be outside the company office in Seattle first thing, with the meanest lawyer I can find.”

“Oh, yeah?” Jason said. He was a couple of years younger than Quentin, a Mormon kid who’d screwed up his mission trip. Someone found out he’d slept with a girl and reported him. He’d signed with Cascade as a sort of spiritual quest, or punishment—Quentin wasn’t sure which. “Sounds like your talk with him was pretty useless, man,” Jason said. “Why not forget it? What are you so eager to get back to?”

 But Quentin wasn’t eager to get back.

His mother had begged him not to enlist in the military just to return in pieces like his father, whose war had been the everyday kind, the battle to earn his keep and his family’s, too. Instead of the military Quentin signed on for a three-month stint on a deep sea fishing vessel. All he knew was that an overwhelming urge had overtaken him—to busy his hands, to fill his mouth and nose and eyes with the unfamiliar and concrete. On those first few days aboard, gaining his sea legs and popping Dramamine, all he could think about was leaving with his twenty thousand in the bank—the hardest money he’d likely ever earn in his life, money he needed to get on his feet when he got back, like his friend Oakley had bragged about. Then Quentin could pay his mother’s rent so they wouldn’t lose the house. He hadn’t been aboard a week, assigned to a group working the winches and ropes, when a crewman’s sleeve got snagged; the crewman shouted and the others struggled to free him, but too late. The mooring mishap cost the unlucky fisherman two fingers. Now, as the metal blade whirred and he worked the cutter, he wondered how his father was doing, if he’d remember Quentin or be too far gone. The day his father had lost his temper in the control tower, rattling his co-workers and jeopardizing dozens of airplanes, had been what forced his early retirement. Twenty-five years in that tower, at what cost?

That night, when Jason whispered his prayers, Quentin mouthed a few lines of his own. He wanted to be sure no one heard, even though the ship never slept, but emitted a constant boom—silence—boom. But, exhausted as he was, he couldn’t sleep. The thoughts never stopped. How could you be such an idiot, to listen to Oakley? What kind of moron signs up for a job that’s just as dangerous as a tour in Afghanistan—at least there you might have risked your life with your friends. How naïve could you be? You deserve to lose your fucking mind. He swung his legs over the bunk and pulled on his clothes.

Above deck, late summer wallowed in its brief night. He lurched for the railing and caught his breath. Frigid out there in the wind, the sun crushed to purple at the horizon. The ship bucked and pitched, its lights cast over the side, but he hung on, inched forward. He ought to be on a safety line. Walls of waves, dark grey, arose like moving hillsides and swiftly disappeared to black. A hypnotic pull, a terrifying abyss. If a man jumped, he’d never be found. The ship rolled upward; he stumbled and retreated, headed back below deck. This time, sleep overcame him.

“Stand by to haul back,” the ship’s loudspeakers droned.

All six in the cabin tugged on their sweats, Grundens suits and wool-lined rubber boots. Then headed down to eat the same breakfast: tasteless scrambled eggs that remained dry clumps no matter how much salt and pepper you used or how long you chewed, the bacon so brittle it scraped your throat, even as you washed it down with coffee. Then a hasty bathroom break before shift, the many layers of clothing bulky and cumbersome. What he wouldn’t give for the choice of a meal, or a bottle of tabasco sauce for his eggs, or just fifteen minutes to himself, to do anything he wanted. He wondered if the military was this much of a prison, or how the men around him could give up so much liberty to earn a living. How had he? For all his mother’s fussing over the dangers of the turbulent Arctic seas, he could still hear her clearly tell an old friend over the phone how thankful and relieved she was to have a son who had a sense of honor and duty to family during hard times—“And I’m hoping it will be good for him, you know—he’ll have an adventure,” she had added. Packing his bags, he thought the same thing. Maybe better that he had not weighed the personal cost to himself but convinced himself of the Jack London fantasy, or else he might have wimped out, cancelled the flight.

That morning Quentin told Dang he couldn’t work below in the factory anymore, something Dang didn’t like to hear from his fastest sorter. When he asked why, Quentin just mumbled, “Please,” and something about needing a break.

The sky was blue and cloudless, and the air tingled Quentin’s cheeks. His head felt lighter, probably because he was no longer bent over an endless pile of fish. When the nets were hauled back and stored along the ship’s sides, the loose fish fell out; trapped between the nets and deck walls, they rotted. Above deck hung gutted fish which the Japanese deckhands had strung up on lines to dry in the salty open air and sunlight—an old practice. The Japanese ripped off chunks of the shredded fish as they hurried underneath. One of them offered Quentin some jerky, and he did his best to respectfully decline. Inhaling fish stench as he jumped nets, ran winches, and wielded his gaff was enough to nearly make him vomit, never mind the sight of the men feasting on those grisly dried strips of fish.

For now, though, the deck saved him from talking in circles with Jason, Crazy Paul, and the rest over the captain’s decision to off-load or not. Being quick to anger, repetition, forgetting where he was, paranoia—that was the kind of thing his father had begun to display, his first symptoms. His father had worked as an air traffic controller, a job that suited his meticulous and energetic personality. When Quentin was in tenth grade, his father’s behavior changed drastically. First his mother discovered missed payments, slight deviations in an otherwise perfect record of his keeping their finances in top shape. One night, months later, his father insisted he couldn’t fall asleep because he heard rats scurrying beneath the bed, made Quentin’s mother lift the mattress and tear off the bedding, revealing nothing. His father had been only forty-nine. Now he was in a home.

At shift-break Quentin headed down to the galley with Mike, one of the few others above deck who spoke English. Mike was a recovering crystal meth addict. Quentin had never seen him take a shower or change clothes in the six months they’d been aboard; his presence made Quentin miss the clean company of his friends. They’d all played baseball together on his high school team. The first baseman had won a full scholarship to the state university and would have started classes by now. The catcher had enrolled in a coding boot camp and tried to convince Quentin, who felt too daunted by the prospect of student loan debt and too undecided about a major, to learn how to code, too. But Quentin had shrugged it off; spending hours staring into a glowing screen, trying to focus on learning an intricate new language, didn’t appeal, although the prospect of a solid income did. “Maybe when I get back,” Quentin had said. Even Oakley was taking classes to become an EMT, thinking about nursing school and maybe joining the Army reserves. Those who were studying or working close to home would be getting together this time of year for weekend games in the park. Would running bases have cleared his head, helped point a path toward what he might claim for himself while still being a good son? If he lost fingers, or worse, he’d never play a game again.

The cold made detecting all but the most putrid smells difficult—most of the time Quentin was thankful for that. Still, he cringed at the layers of grime and fish scales decorating Mike’s arms, the fuzzy brown of his rotting teeth. He was like something they might dredge up in the nets—a barnacled, malformed half-man, half-creature of the deep. “Did anybody come up and ask if you wanted to get off yet?” Quentin asked him.

“Nope,” Mike said. He frowned and scratched his elbow. “But there’s supposed to be a list. You gotta sign your name if you wanna get off.”

In the galley, seven factory workers claimed they’d signed, but no one recalled who was going around collecting names. Quentin choked down his skirt steak and potatoes, furious. Was this a joke? Why couldn’t he get a straight answer—was he deliberately being lied to? He felt like the whole goddamn boat was playing a trick on him.

Before second shift he stormed up to Sasaki, the crew leader on deck. But Sasaki started shaking his head before Quentin had finished shouting at him. “No list,” Sasaki said, arms folded. “We unload at sea. You stay.”

“Sorry, not staying,” Quentin answered. “If there’s a list, my name better be on it. I’m getting off this ship when my contract’s through.”

Sasaki jabbed his finger into Quentin’s chest, then his own. “Good workers stay.”

His father had been a good air traffic controller, Quentin thought. Exceptional, his coworkers had said. Quentin’s family had thrown the retirement party, rented out a reception hall. His father’s condition was genetic, and the mental gymnastics of tracking planes in the air had possibly staved off the onset for some time. Quentin had factored this in when he’d signed the dotted line with Cascade. He was young and fit; what did he have to worry about? The doctors mentioned a test he could take to find out if he was a carrier. Not until he’d spent a few weeks in the factory with Crazy Paul’s PTSD and the stories of crewmen lost overboard in rough seas, the gruesome tales of electrical fires and explosions, severe burns and gouged eyes, did he swallow his gullibility and wished he hadn’t declined. These men were scarred, pushed to the brink for so long some of them had forgotten anything different—as if Cascade had fed them through the cutter. And yet so many signed on, year after year, for the lump paycheck. He told Mike to flag him down if he spotted the officer with the list, that he and the others didn’t deserve to be played around with.

“Relax,” Mike said, adjusting his cap. “Cascade loves to pull this shit. It’s not like they won’t let you off. Eventually.”

The loudspeaker crackled to life: “Stand by to haul back.”

More nets were coming in.

Where was the first mate? He should have a clipboard, be taking names. No one around but the crew. Lately he had caught himself forgetting what he was doing, and he’d stand there momentarily confused, exhausted. The doctors had claimed Quentin had a fifty-percent chance of being a carrier; if he did, his chances of his mind eroding by mid-life was one-hundred percent. Terror would set in as he fought to stay alert around the cutter while the ship pitched and rolled. If he ended up losing a hand or puncturing an artery, what then? He might as well have gone to Afghanistan. He couldn’t recall ever seeing an officer with a list go around and take names of those who didn’t want to renew their contracts; the very conversations of the previous forty-eight hours blurred into mirage. Was it possible he was dreaming up this list, that his mind was so far gone? Or maybe the officer had come around but, dazed by fatigue, Quentin had missed him.

“Stand by to haul back,” the loudspeaker boomed again.

The enormous nets dragged up from the sea, stretched with squirming catch. The night before he’d dreamed a similar scene: He was stomping around in ten inches of freezing saltwater, the fish piled up high as the decks. His frosty breath spewed clouds as he sorted and tossed the catch. Jason called him over, showed him a silver salmon, eerie among the green-black mackerel. “I don’t know what he’s doing this far out,” Jason said. “Must have gotten lost in a current.” Then Jason chucked the salmon to Crazy Paul, who sliced off its head at the cutter. The silver salmon, headless, slid onto the packing table where the Vietnamese with cigarettes hanging from their mouths packed the fish into the metal freezer trays.

“Stand by to haul back.”

If he didn’t get off, the days ahead promised more sorting, packing, and then freezer break, when they heaved out the trays of packed fish from the hydraulic freezers and hauled the frozen blocks to store at the bottom of the ship. Usually the ship would be rolling, the blocks slamming into the men’s chests as they caught them.

He and Jason had been assigned freezer break after Jason had just come aboard. They became friends fast—Jason had yanked him aside when one of those fifty-pound blocks of fish flew out of an unlatched freezer and might have killed Quentin right there. They were getting no rest, and Jason soon developed a raging fever. Quentin didn’t think the kid would last a week.

Now, the only other sounds were the mechanical groans of the ship, the sea and wind, bursts of Japanese. Quentin clung to a mast and closed his eyes. The list had to exist, as sure as those black walls of icy water—now churning and white-capped as far as the eye could see.

The nets pulled in and dropped, and something was wrong. The Japanese waved their arms and shouted to one another. Among the enormous stack of flapping mackerel were tusks, ribs, and skulls. A few of the Japanese crew scavenged for smaller bones to hide in their boot flaps and underneath their Grundens. Some held up skulls and passed tusks back and forth. Sasaki shooed his men away from the catch, but they ignored him.

Word spread quickly. Soon everyone from the factory emerged from below and surrounded the odd treasures. Quentin crowded next to Crazy Paul and Jason. Mike dug through the pile with the Japanese.

“What is this?” Quentin asked Crazy Paul.

“The Walrus Graveyard,” he explained. “They swim here to die. They know by instinct.”

“And them?” Jason asked, pointing to the fishermen looting the bone pile. “They seem pretty excited.”

“Tusks are worth a lot in Asia. They get ground into potions, sold as medicine.”

Quentin wondered if this was another daytime hallucination like his dream about the silver salmon. Or another Arctic mirage, like the land he thought he saw the other day, which had prompted his stroll above deck the night before, when he couldn’t sleep. Just a trick of the horizon after too many hours of sunlight.

Mike held up a tusk longer than his arm, weighed the trophy before him, and, apparently satisfied, picked his way out of the wriggling catch. “Better hurry up if you want anything,” he said. “Captain’s on his way, and we’re supposed to dump all of it back.” He shouldered the tusk, headed below.

“You want anything?” Quentin asked Jason.

“Nah,” he replied. “But, hey, someone came around the factory asking who wanted to get off.”   

“Who? Where’d he go?”

“Some officer handed out the list, said to pass it around below. I didn’t sign it, so I don’t know.”       

So there was a list. Then why had he struggled so much in getting a straight answer? Would the officers have sent a list around if he hadn’t stormed up to the wheelhouse and confronted the Captain in the first place—when none of the others would? Quentin picked up a piece of skull and hurled it overboard, the bone sucked under the swirling, washing machine madness.

Quentin asked Dang if he could return to the factory, and Dang agreed but switched him out with Crazy Paul, who was working cutter. Paul hated arbitrary authority and resented taking orders from the Vietnamese in particular—shrimp fishermen with more warm-water experience than here in the Arctic —despite Dang being the most mild-mannered supervisor aboard. In Vietnam, Dang had been an accountant, but his degree didn’t count for much in the U.S. Quentin liked talking to Dang, who was about the same age as his father.

“You know who has the paper, for the men to sign who want to get off?” Quentin asked Dang.

The crinkle-eyed man shrugged, dwarfed by his oversized suit. “You ask a lot of questions today,” he said, peering up at Quentin. Dang grinned. “Work first, questions later.”

Jason smirked, chucking the good fish onto the table where Quentin now commanded the cutter, slicing off heads. Crazy Paul kept his back to them as he sorted fish. Jason held up two rubber-gloved fingers at Quentin, making hopping motions with them.

Quentin flipped Jason the bird for finding his situation so funny—getting paired with someone widely deemed the voyage idiot. How long until his only friend would realize that he might be coming unhinged like Crazy Paul, and make fun of him? Just how crazy was Paul, after all those missions outside Kabul? Could strenuous conditions trigger a dormant gene to kick in early, impossible to reverse, if it hadn’t already? When he got off the ship, was he going to live any differently, and how?

Quentin decided to test Paul. He fed the cutter slowly, and the sorted fish backed up on the other end. Paul eyed them piling up; Quentin had thrown off his rhythm. Paul muttered to himself as he hurled the fish toward the cutter, unaware of how Quentin was throwing him off. Quentin laughed, the first reprieve he’d felt in days. If only he could laugh more, he might cling to sanity.

But Paul stepped back and let out a roar of frustration. He seized a gaff, began banging away at a post. Jason and Yasek, the biggest workers on board, were laughing so hard that their breath billowed out white and quickly around them.

Dang swung over to their cutter, gestured to Paul. Through the holes in his knit face mask, Dang’s eyes narrowed. He raised his chin, asked sharply, “What’s going on?”

Jason nodded toward Paul and made the rabbit ears sign, still grinning. Dang pulled Paul to the side and told him to take a break. Then Dang dragged Marcel over from the packing table so they wouldn’t fall behind, and Quentin’s laugh quickly died. He exchanged a look with Jason, who frowned. When Marcel grabbed a fish wrong, the fin stabbed him through his rubber glove.

“How long you been on this ship?” Quentin asked him. “Seven months? When are you going to stop pretending you don’t know what you’re doing?”

Marcel glared but said nothing. He sorted only more slowly now, rubbing his hand through the pierced glove. He had once told Quentin he wanted to be an actor when he finished with Cascade, get on a reality TV show—maybe part of the reason he drummed up drama, although Quentin could care less. He should leave the cutter, go back to sorting. Their bag wage depended on how many fish they processed, and if he was going to lose his mind or a limb working a commercial fishing vessel he was sure as hell going to make the most money he could. And he sure wasn’t going to lose fingers because of Marcel.

“Come on, quit slowing us down,” Quentin said to Marcel. “Get to work.”  

“You can’t order me around,” Marcel replied. A smug smile broke over his face, and he puffed out his chest. “I’ve got the list.”

Quentin flicked the switch; his cutter ground to a halt. The ship swooped up and down in the charging seas, and he waited a moment. Then he used gravity to his advantage and lunged at Marcel, who staggered back, then swatted a fish in his face. Stunned, Quentin grappled for Marcel but his hands slid because of the wet gloves. “You hit me with a fish again, I’ll kill you,” Quentin shouted. “Now give me the goddamn list.”

The ship pitched again. Now Marcel was on top, breath stinging his face. Both stumbled backward, Dang marching toward them, yelling.  

Yasek and Jason broke them up. Yasek pressed to Quentin’s ear. In his Polish accent and in between excited breaths, he said, “I know you are thinking of home. Settle down.”

Quentin gulped air, nodded. Dang roared at them—never were they to abuse the catch for such a stupid disagreement. Quentin seized his chance. “Give me the list,” he told Marcel. “Now.”

Dang gave a sharp nod. Marcel whimpered, fumbled underneath his gear, and produced plastic-sheathed packet. Quentin held the pen in his freezing fist and scribbled his signature in big letters that looped over the names above. Without a word, Marcel returned the paper and pen to the plastic baggie, replaced it under his suit, then slithered back to the packing table. Quentin picked his way through the fish, back to the cutter; Crazy Paul slipped back to his place and resumed sorting. Quentin kept his head down. One-eyed fish heads piled up at the cutter. At shift’s end he gave Paul a thump on the back, said he only intended to joke, although he didn’t admit it to Jason or the others.

The next morning, word passed through the galley that the vessel would off-load at Dutch Harbor after all, and remain in shipyard for two weeks. Those who didn’t want to sign a three-month extension could leave. Quentin’s jaw slackened with relief. Soon he’d be on the couch, watching the World Series. If he wanted to he could take a nap during the game. He’d be able to sleep through the night: eight, nine, ten hours if he wanted. He could even invite a girl over.

In the shower, he wept.  

The Aleutians made a beautiful sight on either side as they sailed up to the mainland, even though the islands appeared little more than treeless green rocks. They could see for miles. The masts and hulls of Dutch Harbor dotted the distance.

Those whose contracts were finished ate, showered, and stood by to disembark. In the cabin, Quentin donated his sweats and gear to the men who were staying. He handed Jason his rubber gloves and gaff.

Marcel stuck his head in the doorway. “So when you coming back?” he sneered.

“There’re a million ways to make money besides doing this,” Quentin said, zipping his duffel bag. “Good luck.”

He welcomed the odd hug of his street clothes as he bounded up the stairwell, the tautness of crisp jeans and a button-down flannel shirt. Hair whipping against his cheek, he waved goodbye to Sasaki and shook Dang’s hand. Most of those men would stay on that ship for years; he hoped that didn’t happen to Jason. He was the last one Quentin bid goodbye to.

“Don’t dream of fish,” Quentin said, squeezing his friend’s shoulder.

“Only women,” Jason replied, grinning.

The gangway moaned and shimmied under the men’s weight. Midway across, Quentin realized Jason was calling after him. He teetered there, the last one off, duffel cramping his shoulder and the loom of the ship jarring, suddenly unsure which direction felt like his life—the days spent onboard or the unfathomable ones ahead. He’d all but forgotten how it felt to sit in the backyard, sun warming his face and neck, and sip a glass of iced tea. Maybe he’d spend some time in his father’s woodworking shed. Maybe he’d work some odd jobs for a while, not enroll in courses. Take a slower, more mindful approach; with twenty grand in the bank, why not? He wondered if, during his time at sea, he’d passed the point of no return. If when he got back, he would take the genetic test, or prefer not to know. If his father wouldn’t recognize him. As soon as he asked the question, he was certain of the answer.

At the deck rail, Jason waved his arms wildly. The sweatshirt Quentin had given him just fit his broad frame. Jason cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted down: “I said, stay out of prison, when you get back.”

“What?” Quentin yelled, squinting.

“I mean”—Jason’s voice echoed off the hull—“don’t live in your head so much, or in front of a screen. Keep your spirit.”

Quentin’s sole left the gangway metal, the sun casting his shadow before him—slanted and gigantic, longer than life. Onshore, beneath the sandy grit, the ground pressed back even and solid. He walked on at a clip, shadow a steady bob, always a few steps ahead.          

“Stand by to Disembark” first appeared in Moon City Review.