The Frozen Ladder

On the Ocean Rover, Winter 2001.

Going fishing is called, in dialect, “fær på sjøen.” It was something boys in Norway did when society couldn’t hold them anymore. I took it for granted I should be allowed to do it too. After a summer fishing cod on F/T Havbryn right out of high school I got my uncle to put in a word for me with the company he worked for off the coast of Alaska. I spoke with them once on the phone and flew to Seattle a few days after the new year in 2001.

I reported for duty at the American Seafoods headquarters in a downtown skyscraper. At that time I hadn’t yet spent any time on my own in a large American city. Things were so exotic to me that almost ten years later I still remember innocuous details and mistakes I made speaking to people. Who knows what they made of me, a dark-haired girl about five feet tall, shipping out for the “A” season alongside gigantic Samoan men, bearded Americans, and a huge assortment of South Americans. On the F/T Ocean Rover we were around one hundred crew, a dozen officers, and half a dozen support staff, mostly galley workers. They called it “steaming” as we sailed from Seattle past Canada to Alaska and then out along the Aleutian chain. I had already met Jay at “crew-up,” the big information session where they tried to scare away anyone having second thoughts. He sat down across from me and I looked into the clearest green eyes I had ever seen. I remember just the eyes, nothing else about him. Dwelling on it, I have thought about what my aunt, an anaesthesiology nurse, told me once about deeply sedated people–when you look into their pupils they’re so dilated you feel as if you are looking them straight in the brains.

Utilitarian situations, like factories and boats, don’t get enough credit for being beautiful. Our galley was beautiful and spare, everything purpose-built that functioned exactly the way it was intended was beautiful, even the machines for killing fish and slicing them up. When I went ice-skating as a kid, going into a pirouette I always loved the feeling of being inside the vortex and staying there, keeping the spin going, being strong and knowing how to position myself. On the boat, I had the same feeling of bending my limbs instinctively to keep up a force I knew how to live inside. When Jay knocked on the side of my bunk to wake me for my cleaning shift, before fishing even began, as we were still cruising along the Canadian coast, I reached out from under my covers and took his cold hand. There it was. It was as if a contract had been signed. Nothing we did after that felt any more intimate, just further into the same thing.

The music of this time was the tapes I had brought with me to play on my walkman: Sigur Rós’s “Agætis Byrjun,” Motorpsycho’s double album “Trust Us” and Suzanne Vega’s “Solitude Standing.” This tape, an archaism of an actual album on tape, had come into my family in 1985, around the same time as Chernobyl. It was the year I was forbidden from going outside to play because of radiation. The friends we had celebrated Christmas with had dropped the tape off on our snow-covered balcony secret-Santa style. I remember opening it, how it had come wrapped in an American brown paper grocery bag, an item as exotic as a parrot to me. I was five, it was a good Christmas, I remember shouting with laughter with the other kids and my always screaming, always crying two-year-old brother’s for once benign baby presence. I listened to the album and traced raindrops with greasy fingers down the window panes looking out on our garden. On the boat I also had Radiohead’s newest CD, “Kid A” which we played on the common stereo a lot, and Coldplay’s first album. All this music which I used to love is completely unlistenable to me now, I have to leave the room if I hear it.

I remember my horror at the first shift I worked and how I wrote a letter to K. in Paris that started off with the line “my bloodless heart on a factory conveyor belt.” An Alaskan factory fishing vessel uses a gigantic mid-water trawl to suck fish out of the water into a big net that’s hauled up on deck. After they’ve died from suffocation, the fish are poured into the factory, emerging a few hours later neatly packed in plastic as skinless and boneless fillets in our freezer hold. When the fishing was good we could process hundreds of metric tons of fish every day. The freezer was so capacious we stayed out at sea for two or three weeks before we had to head in to offload. I worked sorting caviar into fifteen Japanese categories of value based on how the little roe sacs had been damaged in processing. Someone else had the job of pulling the roe away from the fish guts. I didn’t hate the work, it was almost as if I was far within myself as my body did the job. The repetitive motions of grabbing and tossing roe ceaselessly throughout the hours gave my shoulder muscles knots I could see in the mirror, so painful they just felt like localized cold. “Is it dangerous?” I asked people. No, they said, it just hurts, and I believed them completely and worked through it.

My shifts were from 8 AM to 2 PM and 8 PM to 2 AM again before we started kick-shifts, mandatory overtime of 2.5 hours that was taken out of sleep time. I might manage to get four and a half good hours of sleep and an hour’s nap every 24 hours, seven days a week for the duration of the season. During rough weather I sometimes put my head inside my pillow case so that my head wouldn’t hit the high sides of the bunk too hard while I was sleeping. Having my body lifted clear off the mattress just felt soothing. I loved my bunk with a possessive passion I’ve never felt for any apartment I’ve had since, organizing it with my Beat Poets reader in one corner and a little net to keep my glasses pinned to the low ceiling of the bunk above me. I had a post card of Edward Hopper’s “Sailing” on the wall and another nameless blue postcard of a European park next to it. When I went to bed I fell asleep so instantly I was dreaming as my eyes were closing. Crab fishermen sometimes ask each other, as they’re working, “Which would you rather have, a blow-job or a nap?” and the joke is funny because it’s not an easy choice. In an economy like that I loved Jay enough to hang out with him when I could have been sleeping. We spent hours talking quietly and he told me horrible stories about growing up in rural Washington state with a house full of half-brothers. Jay was a dissembler and would sweet-talk Child Protective Services when they came to his house. He had been on his own for a long time and had thick purposeful scars all over from working as a sheet-metal apprentice as a young teenager. Although he was only 21 it felt as if he were a grown man talking about his youth. The high walls of the bunk and the thick curtain we would pull made it feel as if we were kids hiding in a crib together, playing my favorite game of having built a little house out of blankets and pillows.

All the abuse he had told me about kept bouncing around my head as I worked my first offloading, 18 hours without a rest. It was like a broken record with the volume up really high, crazy repetition beginning each time as if it were a new thought, about Jay’s grandfather torturing his kids by never kissing them like a normal father, but sticking his tongue down their throats, Jay’s grandfather tying up then beating a horse to death. They gave me a gigantic roll of shrink wrap and my job was to dance around the pallets of frozen boxes of fillets wrapping them tightly so they wouldn’t collapse on their next journey on their next ship. Try it some time if you think it sounds easy. I got blisters on my hands from holding the roll, paying it out, moving constantly, going from a crouch at the bottom of the pallet to a s
tretch near the top over my head. I untied the top of my zip-up work snowsuit and kept at it in a T-shirt, in January in Alaska. I worked so hard and signalled it because I wanted everyone to see that no matter what they tried, I wasn’t some weakling who’d break down, I could keep up with the guys. It was almost as if I didn’t have free will in demanding respect in that way, my need was that strong. When the shift was finally over I ate as much as I could stuff myself with and went to my bunk. Five minutes after I lay down Jay came to be with me for a bit and I almost hit him as I kicked him out. My skin ached. I think I may have felt vaguely apprehensive. We got mail delivered while we were offloading, and I still have the last letter my little brother wrote me, about his good grades at the Cathedral School where he was following in my footsteps and the 7 he got for a history essay. I remember exclaiming in English, “Oh, good boy!” just like my dad as I read it.

We were paid based on how much fish we caught, and a notice was posted every day telling us how much we had earned. As the season went on we started hitting the thousand-dollar days. After everything was over I ended up pocketing $11,652 for three straight months of 14.5-hour days of work. I didn’t have any expenses during those three months: room and board and even my laundry was taken care of. After I finished my shift one day I went out on deck and looked around. There was nothing, just waves in every direction. Everything was either immediate or very far away. It was so shockingly beautiful I teared up, I thought my nose was bleeding. When I was back on land again it felt like having new glasses. After weeks without anything there to see I had briefly lost the ability to see the middle distance.

A few days before my 20th birthday the factory manager woke me to tell me I had a phone call. Immediately I knew it was a special occasion, satellite calls cost $10 a minute, but I thought it was my family calling to wish me an early happy birthday. Taking the phone I spoke to my dad but got no sense out of him, he was crying hysterically. I couldn’t understand or perhaps I couldn’t take it in, it was so different from what I had expected to hear. I gathered my brother was in the hospital. I went down to Jay for a bit and then went back upstairs and called back. I reached my mom this time. “How’s David?” I asked. She told me. It had been a skiing accident. On the last hill of the day down to the car he had slipped off the slope. “Oh, honey. He passed away.” She said it so simply. I had time to be angry at the euphemism before I collapsed over a life raft box staring at the gulls hanging in the air outside the wheelhouse. I felt incredibly cold. I had time to think, oxygen ending, that I would remember this scene for the rest of my life and so far it has held true. It has never become a memory, it’s still a flashback with the smell and feel intact of the motion of the boat, its gentle heavings like part of my own body, seeing the birds’ wings making minute adjustments. Sea birds are very large, they follow the boat. There was heavy fog and I could only see us, our boat, and then dark sea and white foam.

At the time this happened we were just off St. Paul, a small volcanic island with a tiny population of Aleutian islanders. There was a World War II air field on the island and a flight every now and again to Anchorage. The American Seafoods office back in Seattle made arrangements once they heard what had happened. The officers on board interrupted the fishing schedule, something I’m still amazed they would do for me, and steamed in close to St. Paul, close enough to skiff me in. I was held together by nothing, maybe my clothes. I got into a survival suit like the others and we got into a small rubber boat, me and two or three crew. I can’t convey just how far from home I was at that point. The Bering Sea is gigantic and very deadly cold, and we were in an open boat on it. I was nowhere. It felt as close to gone from earth as my brother was. We reached St. Paul island and there was a metal ladder up to the dock. It was March in Alaska, and the ladder was thickly coated with ice, frozen salt water, just a gigantic perverse icicle. One of my pilots got out a small fire axe. He chipped away the ice from the ladder back up to land. They sat back. I climbed the frozen ladder, slow and firm, but I don’t really feel I’ve ever quite returned.

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