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Humpies

by Mattox Roesch


Go-Boy asked a girl to marry him. He had just told me this when his dad freaked out.

It was five in the morning. We were in Go-Boy’s room and I was sitting on his dresser, sideways. My feet dangled over a missing patch of fake wood grain, torn back like a bed sheet, exposing particleboard. I was telling him we needed to get to work because we were late, but he wasn’t hearing anything. Dude was on his bed. His eyes were wound up like yo-yos ready to drop.

He was telling me about this girl, that he was showing her how to use his boat the night before. He told her the throttle gets stuck sometimes. Then they drove out to the mouth of the river. He told me he shut the engine down and explained that the fuel pump doesn’t always work right, and that you have to pump it by hand. She hopped in the driver’s seat. It just felt right, he said. Right then. Before she started the motor. So he asked her.

I was sitting on that dresser as he told me all of this, not believing my ears. Go-Boy was really excited and I wondered if he’d ever had a girlfriend at all. Then we heard his dad in the living room. He was screaming so loud it sounded like someone was cutting metal out there. Go-Boy almost didn’t even react though, like it wasn’t weird, and that’s when I wanted to leave. But he got up and I followed him down the hall, walking on the little floor rugs with knotted string tassels, into the living room.

Go-Boy had been telling me how this girl said no. He was bummed at first. She didn’t even think he was serious, but he was. They were floating out there in the water in a small aluminum fishing boat, around midnight. Daylight was about to drop behind the north end of the ocean, adding that eeriness of a sunset that nobody would see. It was probably graveyard quiet, the occasional slurping sound of a wave hitting the boat. Then she said she didn’t know him very well. She said she was only nineteen, and that they had just started dating. But Go said it felt right, that’s why he asked her.

And then we heard that cutting metal scream and I followed him into the living room. Then we saw his dad put Go’s three-year-old brother in a coma.

~

That was the day the humpies came—early that morning, before I went to Go’s place. There were thousands of them. Even more. They were in the river, jumping and splashing like it was raining size-nineteen Chuck Taylors. I was at the shore, sitting in my flatboat, waiting for Go. We were supposed to work, to motor upriver to the fish tower. But the tide went out that morning and my boat wasn’t back anchored, so it got beached. I tried pushing it alone but the damn thing was heavy.

Down the shoreline, old guys were standing around in rubber boots, drinking coffee from silver cups and talking and watching these fish jump. They walked along the mossy gravel shore, along with the seagulls and the random fish guts where the water had been a couple feet deep not too long ago.

“Lots,” some guy said to me, smiling, dropping waders and buckets into his boat.

I just nodded, because this shit meant headaches for us up at the tower. It was tough enough counting these salmon from twenty-five feet in the air. It was tougher to know which kind was which. And now it would be a nightmare. It was like babysitting the entire river, keeping tabs on which ones swam up stream and which ones swam down.

This guy asked if I needed help with my boat, but I said no.

“It’s like ’94,” he said, firing up the motor and grinding away.

That’s when I gave in and headed for Go’s house. I normally wouldn’t have gone there. His sister, Kiana, had just chewed my ass a few days earlier and her boyfriend was threatening to kick my face in. But I thought at five in the morning nobody would be awake. I’d nudge Go and we’d be on our way.

~

We didn’t work that day. We didn’t radio the tower to let them know what was happening. We didn’t call our bosses at IRA or Fish and Game. We didn’t do anything. I left Go’s place and went home and back to sleep.

When a cop showed up at our house later that morning, Mom was red in the face. She probably knew the guy from when she grew up here. I was laying in bed, studio headphones blocking out all noise except the music in my ears. She came into the room, said something, but I couldn’t hear.

“What?”

“Why are the cops asking for you?”

I shrugged.

Her black hair was pulled back and messy and her freshly plucked eyebrows looked like little rolled cigarettes. I wasn’t sure if she was embarrassed that the cops were looking for her son, or if she was embarrassed to be caught looking so disassembled.

“I don’t want this shit to be following you up here,” she said, already mad before anything even happened. “I’m not gonna put up with another thug living under my roof.”

I walked past her and out the back door to tell these cops that I didn’t know anything about Go’s dad and brother. Mom was so out of whack it was unbelievable. Up here, near the Arctic Circle, where everybody knew everybody, she wasn’t concerned about her son ending up dead. She was concerned about her son looking like a thug—getting that reputation. Everybody already knew her oldest son was in prison back in California because of some gang stuff. What did that say about the mother? What would it say if the second son turned out the same way? But I didn’t give a fuck, cause Pop wouldn’t sell me out like that to save himself. If Pop were up here with us, he would stand up to the cops. Say, “Yeah, my son’s here. There something I can help you with?” Mom just gets pissed and wonders what I did now.

~

I first knocked on Go-Boy’s bedroom window. The boat was beached and Go was a half-hour late. I knocked a second time and he parted the curtains and waved me in. The front door was open. I left my shoes in the entryway and walked through the living room into the hall. A kitchen light was on, even though the sun was pretty bright that early. Cheap plastic sports cups were everywhere in the living and dining room—mostly basketball cups with a picture of the player and their signature. Dream Team, from way back, with Michael and Magic. Some football. Barry Sanders. A few commemorative baseball cups.

Go-Boy’s bedroom smelled like coffee. There were a couple mugs half-full on his nightstand. One was steaming. He had a notebook and it looked like he was writing a letter. In about five minutes he would tell me about that girl he asked to marry him, the girl that said no. But right then his yo-yo eyes glanced up at me, quick, barely acknowledging I was in the room. Those eyes didn’t know what time it was. Those eyes hadn’t slept.

Before this I hadn’t talked to Go for a few days, not since his sister bitched me out at the potluck. She had grabbed my arm, like she was planning to pull me aside, out of my seat, but instead she just squeezed and said all sorts of stuff about me spreading rumors and talking bad about her. Go-Boy was sitting next to me. He heard it all. She said she was drunk when she slept with me at that party, and it was a mistake, and that I shouldn’t be telling people we were dating when she had a boyfriend. But she was just making a big deal out of something dumb. Sixteen-year-old drama.

When I hopped up on Go’s dresser, waiting for him to stop scribbling in his legal pad, I squeezed my fist open and closed, still feeling that sensation of Kiana’s little fingers wrapped around my forearm, her nails digging into my long sleeve shirt. There wasn’t a bruise or anything. It was a memory.

“We gotta work, man.”

He glanced up like he was surprised I was there. But right away he turned back to the notebook, scribbling a list of things with his left-handed grip and his elbow high.

I said, “Damn, dude, you don’t look good.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Maybe you’re sick.”

~

There had to be millions of those fish. Those humpies. When they jumped you could see their fleshy bellies, silver and black fading down to that pink. When I waited for Go that morning I sat in my boat and tried to count every one I could see and hear. But that was dumb, like counting waves.

I thought about these things swimming in from the Bering Sea—a school of a million darting this way and that, covering thousands of miles. Every single one of them, down to the last one, could change the direction of the whole group. At least that’s how I imagined it. Fish are so nervous all the time. With their unblinking eyes pealed on both sides, any little movement by one freaks them all out. It’s a miracle they can end up at a single destination. It’s a miracle they don’t get so sidetracked that they never find a river to swim up and spawn in. It’s a miracle they ain’t all extinct.

~

“Why are they asking you about that?” Mom said after that cop had left. She was interested in me for real now. Word had spread throughout the day that Go’s three-year-old brother, Sean, was in a coma. A church group was getting together to pray about it at six o’clock. Mom had cooked meatloaf in an aluminum bread pan for Go and Kiana and their dad. Nobody knew anything happened the way me and Go-Boy did, though, and he must not be talking.

“Do you know something?” she asked.

I shrugged and turned away.

“There are a few different stories circulating around town,” she said. “If you know something–”

“Nah, mom. I don’t know anything.”

“I heard Sean had been staying up past midnight,” she said. “And that he walks in his sleep when he’s real tired.” Mom was wiping down the counters. These kind of events, like big news and rumors, made her a marathon cleaner. “They Medivaced him to Anchorage. He’s in a coma.”

I said. “I ain’t talked to Go-Boy either.”

She told me nobody had talked to Go, that they couldn’t find him. She told me Kiana discovered Sean lying on the living room floor. Their dad was in his bedroom, passed out. His story was that Sean must’ve sleepwalked, fallen, knocked his head.

Go-Boy wasn’t home, or at work, or anywhere.

~

After me and Go saw his old man put the little kid in a coma, neither of us moved. His dad stumbled out of the living room, not even noticing that we were right there, seeing it all. And that’s when I left. That’s the way I left. Go-Boy frozen there. His dad swaying into the kitchen.

They lived in a HUD home on the northeast side of the village, a place called Happy Valley. It looked like a clean version of an Indian reservation, or at least compared to the crap I had seen. Rows of redundant houses. Yards and streets bare of trees or grass. Crooked telephone poles tying everyone together. Behind it was the dried up marsh that went a mile in both directions till it ran into the hills. I headed for Grandpa’s house where me and Mom and my sister stayed, over on the west side where the river opened to the Norton Sound, to the Bering Sea.

I walked the long way home, down the gravel roads, zigzagging around muddy truck-sized puddles. To my right was the cemetery full of fireweed with white crosses poking above the brush, looking like a picket fence gone wrong. Behind that was the dark gravel runway for the airport. Next to one of the sheds a forklift spun around, stopped next to a plane and raised a plywood box they were throwing cargo into.

Or maybe the forklift wasn’t running that morning. Maybe it was just parked.

~

When Kiana called that night, I told Mom I didn’t want to talk to her.

That police guy had been back again around suppertime. He took me out to his truck and sat me in the front seat. Some older kids I recognize from playing ball at open-gym were walking past, and it made me feel immature to be in that patrol car, to be restrained. The cop started the motor and spun the temperature dial over to red for some heat. He asked me the same questions and stroked his hamburger bun mustache. Was I at Go’s place that morning? Had I seen anything happen to Sean? Had I seen Go-Boy since?

Out the window I could see the mouth of the river where Go and that girl floated just before he asked her to marry him. It was the same place all those humpies were racing through to get upriver, to lay their eggs, to spawn, and make more fish.

This cop told me the seriousness of witnessing a crime. And then, when I still wouldn’t say shit, he told me neighbors saw me leaving Go-Boy’s house early that morning. But I was cool. I said that I had been there, but that nothing weird happened. Nobody was awake. Go-Boy was sick and didn’t want to work, so I put my shoes on and walked home.

Even if I would tell somebody, I hadn’t yet decided what I would say or who I would say it to. Truth is, I was waiting for Go to pop up, to talk to him, let him deal with it.

The cop was quiet a moment. I asked him if I could go right then, but he didn’t respond. He waited a little longer, then said, “Why didn’t you head to work after you left?” But that was easy. I said my boat was high-and-dry. Then I opened the car door and went back in the house.

Mom told me I had to tell her what was going on, why the police were still bugging me. She had this newfound sense of dominance since we moved here. Because she ditched Pop she was now rediscovering her power. I was just a small detail in that plan.

I grabbed a Pepsi from the fridge and she was on my every move, checking right down the list—Did I steal something? Was I doing drugs? Did I get in a fight? Did I tag a building? Sure, I had. But not since California.

“Nothing, ” I said. I told her that the police were trying to find Go, which wasn’t a total lie. They had people out in boats and in trucks looking for him everywhere. All his uncles had dropped everything and formed a search and rescue team. He had only been gone since that morning, but considering what happened to his brother, everyone was worried. He wasn’t at home or at the fish tower or at the gym or anywhere.

And I wouldn’t tell Mom the truth. Seeing what I had seen gave me too much responsibility. Talking about it would make it worse. I just wanted to forget the whole thing.

~

After Go’s dad freaked out I went home, but I didn’t really sleep. I laid in bed, listened to headphones. I put a tape that used to be my brother’s in the stereo. It was a blank, recorded for him by some friend. It said, WICHO’S SHIT in marker. It was mostly old school rap. Stuff he listened to standing in front of the huge mirrors in our parents’ bedroom. He would put that tape on and dance in front of his reflection, wearing nothing but sweatpants and socks, kicking and jumping all over the mauve carpet, occasionally sparking from the static. This was probably ten years earlier, ’92 maybe, and I wouldn’t join him, because I was like seven or eight, and the last time I tried he thought I was being funny and punched a charcoal bruise on my shoulder. This was serious. This was the place he tried new moves before he showed his friends, before he went to the junior high dances. I felt like I was backstage.

~

Kiana came to our door that night, and when she knocked, I knew it was her. People were always coming over to our place and just peeking in and hollering. Nobody knocked. But from my bedroom, I could hear a thin little rap on the aluminum door, with thin little fingers. This was only about fifteen minutes after Mom told me she was on the phone, when I said I didn’t want to talk.

Part of me was glad she was here. Not because I wanted to get lectured again or because I wanted her crying and asking me for help, but because my muscles had been anxious all day. Because I wanted to get this drama over with, get back to relaxed, like yesterday.

The padded sound of feet came to my room. Then she was right there. She looked like hell. Her throat was tensed like someone was poking at the undersides of her jaw with drumsticks. And even though the stress and sadness and all that stuff loomed over everything, I couldn’t help being aroused. I couldn’t help remembering that night we had sex, at that party. I was pretty drunk and couldn’t recall anything else that happened, except her. Those airbrushed forearms and fingertips. Her hipbones and sides of her neck, classically smooth but sharp like the curves of a restored old car.

“Hey,” she said, exhaling.

I nodded her in. She sat on my sister’s bed, and when she did that I realized how young she really was. Even though she occasionally tried assertiveness over her big cheekbones, it didn’t work. She was still a sixteen-year-old kid.

“You okay?” I asked.

She didn’t hear anything. She was deep in thought, trying to put together something to say. It looked like she had been doing this all day, this thinking and explaining.

“I know you were there,” she eventually said. “This morning.”

I reached to the radio on my dresser, acting like I had something to do.

“Go-Boy is missing,” she said. “We can’t find him.” She looked down at the bed, next to her hip, her pointer finger twisting a loose string on the blanket; her knees pressed tight side by side. “And I know you were there when Sean got hurt.”

“Where?” I said.

“I heard you two in his room. I heard my dad.”

After she said that we didn’t talk for a while. In my head, that cutting metal scream sounded different now that I knew she heard it. Now it was more of feeling than a sound. I pictured her in a closed room, lying in bed, blankets clenched and knotted around her neck. I imagined her eyes being pealed like those fish, ready to dart in any direction. And I still wanted nothing to do with this, but now I wanted somebody to snitch on her dad for me, to get some kind of justice.

“Please don’t say anything,” she said. She was looking at the floor below my bed. “Don’t say anything about what my dad did. He didn’t mean to do it. He was drunk. It was an accident.”

~

We heard that noise from Go-Boy’s bedroom. He didn’t say anything and I didn’t either. We just got up and walked out to the living room to see what was happening.

On the floor was Go’s brother. I didn’t know for sure, but I guessed him to be around three years old. He was wrapped in an orange blanket like a stork had left him on the front step but then dragged him into the house. He was half asleep, that tired little kid daze in his eyes. The carpet around him was matted and full of lint. A New York Knicks cup that was tipped sideways and caked with soda syrup was tucked under the couch.

That’s when Go’s dad appeared from the kitchen. He was a terror. He raged under his breath, tipping side to side like he was on a boat. Then he came swinging, throwing a glass ashtray straight at the little boy on the floor, hitting him in the head. And then he kept throwing more stuff. The ashtray knocked the kid out. It was a lucky shot, because when he threw a wooden napkin holder and the remote control he barely grazed an arm or a leg.

But the messed up part was that Go didn’t do anything and I didn’t do anything. We just watched it happen.

~

When Kiana and me left my house, Mom gave me one of those looks. I don’t know what it meant, it was just one of those distrustful looks.

We walked down the road to the point. Kiana was a half step in front of me and I looked at the ground and watched the back of her jeans drag on the gravel. There was an old telephone pole lying sideways that we sat on. It overlooked the mouth of the river and the ocean. I wanted to tell her that it was just out there, not even a day ago, that her brother Go floated in a boat and asked a girl to marry him. But I wasn’t that type of guy to be yapping. Pop always was telling me not to mess around in other families’ business.

She told me that when Go was little, he used to run around the house naked with his arms raised above his head. He’d wear a fireman’s hat. She laughed when she said this, even though she hadn’t been born when it happened, she just saw pictures. “He was so cute,” she said.

And I thought about how tomorrow would come, and how Go would still be missing, and I’d still be the only one who knew what really happened, what really almost killed that little kid. Go-Boy would be gone and Sean would be half-dead and their dad wouldn’t remember why.

The humpies were still jumping in the river, maybe not as strong as they were that morning, but close. I told her I had watched them swim in. I told her that in thirty minutes the river went from calm to crazy. I was lying a little, but it didn’t matter, because she didn’t care.

“Man, where do they all come from?” I asked.

She didn’t answer.

“I wonder if they swim in from Russia or Hawaii?”

Then we were silent again.

Upriver a boat stopped along the far shore and a lady hopped out, carrying ten gallon buckets, and walked up to her drying racks. Underneath her miniature gazebo thing, fifty or sixty salmon fillets hung.

“Sorry about yelling at you,” she said, shifting, and pulling her knee to her chest, and then dropping it back down. I could tell it wasn’t easy for her to say that. If she didn’t have a boyfriend, that would have been the moment to grab her hand or her thigh or something.

We sat a little longer, and I bet her she couldn’t count every single humpy that jumped. She didn’t try.

“I wasn’t really drunk,” she told me.

“What?”

“I lied,” she said. “I wasn’t drunk that night.”

I picked up a gilly—a chunk of broken glass that had been polished by the ocean into a smooth rock. I massaged it between my fingers. Kiana was sitting on my right side, and I hoped she’d grab at that gilly and pretend like she wanted it. But instead of taking it from me, she would hold my fingers and our hands would drop between us, still locked. Then we’d weave them all together like a zipper, and I’d set them halfway up her lap where both legs met together. Maybe we’d kiss in a few minutes. Maybe not. I didn’t care. We could wait. We could just sit there like that, hold hands.

“So,” she said. “You promise you won’t say anything about my dad?”

I leaned forward, confused, dropping my elbows on my knees. Then I dropped that gilly and pulled my jeans up to keep them from touching the ground.

“Please.”

She was powerless to this guy, to her pop. She was cleaning up after him and now she was messing with my head at the same time. Maybe she really was sober the other night. Maybe she really was sorry. But I didn’t feel that way right then. Now I didn’t believe her. Pop always told me not to mess with other families’ business, unless other families’ business messes with you.

“I already told you,” I said. “I wasn’t there.”

“Thank you.”

Then she got up and just left me sitting.

~

After that glass ashtray hit Sean’s head, just above his ear, it rolled a short half-moon and bumped against the leg of the couch. It was emerald green, with floating sparkles, and caked with muddy ash residue. Go-Boy was standing slightly in front of me. I saw all of it happen around his shoulder. To my right was the entryway and the door.

But we didn’t move. Go-Boy’s dad threw that napkin holder and remote control, still screaming, and then he tripped a bit and caught himself on a lamp. Then he looked around like he forgot what he was doing.

That’s when I left. I grabbed my shoes and went out the door without even putting them on. The front step was muddy and my right sock got wet from my big toe to my arch.

~

After Kiana left me sitting on that telephone pole, alone, I watched the humpies jump some more. In a few weeks, all of these flapping and wiggling things would be dead. They’d wash up on the beaches and sandbars like all of them before. That’s what Go told me anyway. He said that when they swim into the river from the ocean to spawn, they stop eating. He said the freshwater messes with them. He said after a couple weeks, after they’ve dropped their eggs and sperm in all the right places, they die. Just like that. These things cruise around the ocean for years, and then when they’re ready, when they group up and find their way to some river, they swim right in and die.

I figured I’d sit there on that telephone pole and watch them a little longer. They were right at the mouth of the river. They had swam some long-ass distance and were just happy to flip around. They didn’t know what was ahead of them. They didn’t know that all of this led to their death. But I imagined that didn’t even matter. They’d still swim up this river if they knew what it meant, because it was the only thing they knew how to do.

 

Mattox Roesch received a 2006 Minnesota State Arts Board grant for his fiction, as well as a 2005 Loft Mentor Series Award. “Humpies” is taken from a novel-in-stories project currently underway, entitled Sometimes We're Always Real Same-Same. He has a story forthcoming in The Missouri Review. (6/2006)


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