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Authors: Elizabeth Tallent

Mendocino Fire

BOOK: Mendocino Fire
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Dedication

for GLORIA

Contents
The Wrong Son

Among the son's
bright fucking ideas
, that last summer they worked together, was the notion that since there was good money in sportfishing they ought to start taking out parties of tourists. Shug could savor a rank cigar, resting up his bad shoulder while doctors and lawyers baited hooks, and when a senator failed to reel in a big Chinook Shug could grin around the last skunky inch and salt the wound with “Wave bye-bye to your wallhanger, son.” Nate figured guys like that would secretly dig the condescension and come back for more, because no matter what he said or how he treated people Shug was indulged, a dispensation Nate had not inherited. He did get his share of the Dawe looks—lank black hair that came to a widow's peak in front, large homely ears, definite jaw—but the mix could go different ways, in Nate a semicomic near miss, in his father strong-boned, remorseless beauty that misleadingly
suggested great depth of character. Women, sure—the beauty of women was supposed to cause trouble, but Nate would not have believed such havoc could be wreaked by a man if he hadn't witnessed the consequences firsthand. He was sometimes asked by unsmiling women how his dad was doing these days and had figured out that the right, if fallacious, answer was “Not so good.” Once as a kid Nate was given a packet of red licorice by a high-heeled out-of-town-looking woman who said earnestly, “I know he's your father but he's a liar.” And then: “You know better than to tell your mom where you got that, right? Yeah, I can see you do.”

Fishing guide was a comedown, and Shug surely viewed it as such, but Nate's plan held out the promise of redeeming pleasures. The same stories that caused Nate to grind his teeth lightly together—the freighter lit up like a nighttime skyscraper bearing down on Shug through fog, the mast clustered with barnacles that flaked upward as a whirlwind of monarch butterflies, the shark in whose sliced-open belly Shug found a seagull—would be taken for gospel by tourists eager to experience the real Mendocino. If there were wives along, Shug could charm them—saying this, Nate suffered a familiar pang. Shug did more than charm. He would grin back at the big black sunglasses hiding the wives' curiosity, and at some point he and one of the wives would rendezvous in a fifty-dollar room with a factory seascape over the creaky bed, but Nate could handle this if it meant saving the boat, and whether Shug acknowledged it or not they were in dire straits along with every other fisherman they knew, government regulations hemming them in on every side. This last was a good point to make to Shug, who hated the federal government worse than Vietnamese abalone poachers, worse even than bankers. Reborn as a party boat, the
Louise
would be consistently booked, and they could rely, day by day, on the money coming in, a certainty no Dawe had ever before possessed, and worth a try, Dad, right?

“Over my dead body.”

Which phrase caused Nate to tread guiltily, eyes averted, past that dead body cast up on the pebbled beach of consciousness.

Like most who count on intuition Shug had his ritual, resting scarred knuckles against the bone over his dark eye and waiting. His green eye was ordinary, but the tortoiseshell one saw down through the world's surfaces to its deep, shifting currents of luck, and even when other boats came home empty the
Louise
was nearly always in the fish. When, seven years old, Nate first said he wished
he
had a weird eye, the confession met with the rebuke, mild for Shug, that he was imagining things.

This was on the
Louise
, a diamond afternoon shattering across the ocean, waves hurrying at the pace of a fire-drawn crowd, Nate captive in childhood, in an old life jacket, arms dangling like a fat boy's, meaning his tall graceful father was even more likely to lash out than usual because he was irked by awkwardness as a cat is by wet paws. The dirty, mildewy, sun-warmed hug of the life jacket braced Nate for confrontation. He was seven and alone. This was life then, this bravery, this scaredness, this love of the truth in your possession, the thing you had seen that set you apart and somehow
was
you. You and no one else. That morning when his mother had squatted to fasten the buckles of his life jacket, Nate had studied the center parting in her red hair and seen the jog the parting made to accommodate a pink mole, and this revelation, that his mother had flaws previously undisclosed to him, drove home the extent of her
vulnerability, and he would have given anything to protect her from his father's hectoring, his father saying
Don't fucking teach him that, no real fisherman wears one, fall overboard and you're dead so you don't fucking fall.
His mother said
He's a kid, kids have accidents.
As if Nate was not listening she said
Say he falls.
Nate tried to get in
I won't fall
, but already (and it was not like her: she was not an insister) she was saying again
Say he falls, Shug, tell me what would you do then
, a protest, a demand, a bargain because she was letting his father take him, entrusting his life to his father and his father did not say what she wanted him to say,
I would find him, of course I would find him
, but then Shug never said what she wanted him to, and it was dismaying that she still nursed reckless hopes. Now, on the boat, Nate reasoned that if Shug was wrong about his own eyes, as he plainly was, he could be wrong about other things, and that in the gap between what his father insisted was true and what
was
true Nate's private perceptions could take root and thrive. He stood there in his sissy life jacket confronting this prospect, with scarcely time to rejoice before the big rough hand cupped his head and his dad said
All right now? Back to work
, as if Nate worked as hard as he did, as if they were together all day long. As they ended up being.

Another memory, harder to account for, in which there was no life jacket: Once when he had made some mistake his dad had picked him up under the arms and swung him back and forth over the edge of the boat, out over the dazzling drop. Below the half-moons of white rubber capping his Keds an abyss reeled past, scintillae shuttling back and forth at the speed of panic. Nate hung there, legs dangling, hating with such concentration that he feared his father would sense it and, as punishment, let go. Instead his feet thumped down on the deck and Shug said
There you are
, as if this were a natural initiation into terror and
Nate should have expected it. And as if he, the father, had performed it ably and even with a measure of affection. And Nate stood there, and among the things he felt was love, as if what had happened had been pure rescue.

Nate's friends didn't like when he started in on Shug, first because they believed in keeping family shit in the family, second because Shug took them out on the boat for their birthdays and asked
How's it going
and if there was a problem with some girl he told them what to do with an authority Nate alone understood was totally bogus, since Shug hadn't ever stayed around for problems but simply disappeared until the woman, whoever she was, concluded it was over. Still, when things got rough for him at home Nate's best friend, Petey Crews, would say he wished Shug was his father. His screwed-up longing caused Nate to glance away: not his job to set anybody straight. Stoned the night of senior prom, Petey said it was mutual and Shug had told him he got the wrong son. What the fuck did that mean, the wrong son? Petey tried to wriggle out of it.
Shug likes a good time, right? You gotta admit you're not a lot of laughs.
Maybe that had something to do with working for a living and maybe Petey should try it, Nate said, and then report back about the laughs. Petey said
Nate, man, you're too hard on your old man, you need to—.
It could have been Nate's look that caused him to break off, or the quicksand shame of condescension going awry, but whatever it was Petey said
It's just we're more alike, him and me.
Nate thought
Both motherfuckers.
If he had said that aloud the friendship would have ended then and there, and not because he had called Petey a motherfucker, but because he had called Shug one. But it was Petey who couldn't leave it alone.
You hate fishing, while me, I
would fucking love it, that's all Shug wants, a son to love what he loves, out on the ocean every single day, who gets to live like that, only you, right, the last of the last? On your own, live or die, make it or don't make it, it's down to you and your dad and how hard you work and whether your luck holds and, man, I would fucking love that.

For months afterward they didn't talk, but it was only when Rafe told him about Petey's enlistment that Nate understood how wrong things had gone. He got emails from Iraq that sounded as if they were still best friends, but it seemed cruel to write back about his wife and his baby, and besides, thinking of Petey aroused an obscure and guilty sense of finality. He just didn't want any more to do with the guy, and he let the emails accumulate unanswered.

But before that, while they were in high school, the best times were Nate and Petey Crews jammed into the cab of Rafe Figueredo's truck, talking about driving down to the city or farther, LA, Baja, Austin,
If we want to we can just take off
, ending up at the little beach they thought of as their own, the brothers Owen and Jeff Jennings and Boone Salazar there already along with Boone's girl, brown-eyed Annie Brown leaning back on one arm in the damp sand, tossing mussel shells into the driftwood bonfire for the glassy
tink
of breakage, Nate liking that, not sure why, standing there nursing his longneck, another Saturday burning down to embers, wind from the west pasting his shirt to his skin, his abs impressive, he'd gone too long between haircuts but he thought he looked pretty good, he liked brown eyes and it would be nice having a girlfriend, telling his mom they were thinking about getting married, his troubles recounted to somebody who cared, who would argue it wasn't
right that Nate
worked for
his dad when he should be an equal partner, with an equal say in business decisions, if you could call the
Louise
a business.

Nate turned nineteen, then twenty, and when somebody wanted to talk about him in town they said
You know—Shug Dawe's boy, that's out on the boat with Shug. Thought he might go away to college but he never did.
In the Smoke River fashion the
thought
was unattributed, detached from any particular thinker. In Smoke River a thought was scarcely conceived before it was presented as common knowledge. That way if the thought turned out to be wrong nobody could be held responsible; that way the basis for an assertion was clouded. Nate
had
wanted to get out, had imagined the friendly anonymity of crowded lectures, secondhand textbooks, girls with ponytails bending over laptops, calls where he explained he couldn't come home over the weekend because there was this big paper due Monday. If he went home he would be asked to help, spend the day on the boat maybe, and the old life would take hold and insist that it alone was real and nothing out there, certainly no other means of making a living, would ever come close, and the fantasized Nate, the Nate who had gotten away, would have to stay gone long enough to build up immunity, and how long would that take? Shug swept an arm toward the horizon, dove gray below slate gray, mother-of-pearl cloud scrolling toward a waning sun made of naked pink light, and said
Another rough day at the office.

As close as he ever came to saying
beautiful
.

Even as fishermen went bankrupt the tourist trade flourished. From the wide spectrum of out-of-towners to hate, Shug singled
out for particular venom the abalone divers who flocked to Smoke River each August and stood around their SUVs hoisting beers, wetsuits unzipped to display big white bellies. Inevitably one or more of their photos would appear in the Smoke River
Sentry
in their new guise, as drowned men.

More skillful were the Vietnamese poachers whose fine-boned clever faces never made the front page, though sometimes one of their vans with the tinted windows figured in a photo with Fish and Game guys swarming over it, and their names, Lu and Tran and Vinh and Ng, chimed through the court report, which detailed the number of abalone taken and the fines and jail sentences assessed, but as Shug said, for every thieving Tran they caught, a hundred drove home to San Francisco or Sac with a fortune in abalone. They sold to Chinese dealers who, with abalone increasingly scarce, paid not by the pound but by the gram. The poachers ran calculated risks for serious money, five, ten, twenty grand worth of abalone in the coolers inside the black vans parked at night near remote coves. Within, the funk of unwashed maleness, neatly stashed diving gear, glossy black heads protruding from cheap sleeping bags—so said Boone Salazar, a classmate whose boastfulness Nate had always distrusted. Boone was hired by Fish and Game when Shug put a word in for him, and had fallen into the habit of stopping by the house for a beer with Shug, which seemed funny at first, a guy Nate's age hanging out with Nate's old man. But they were two of a kind, Boone and Shug, inclined when drunk to taunt each other in the glottal stops and high-pitched whines of made-up Vietnamese. Maybe it was reassuring, having another person echo your racist ignorance: Nate didn't want to think too hard about it.

BOOK: Mendocino Fire
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