My Life as a Salmon

by Tom Johnson

 

My father has this funny idea about names. He wants me to call him a new name each time I write him and often signs his letters “Padre Viejo,” “The Ancient Mailer,” “Honored Sire,” “The Absentee,” “The Pink Energizer Bunny,” and so on. He began the name-changing idea one day while reading a book on relationships and identity that caused him to consider his own paternal relationship. He could never call his father anything but “Daddy,” and this really bothered him later in life because he felt very childish calling his father Daddy when both had gray hair and backaches. His father was buried before my daddy could do anything about it, so here is the story of our protean nomenclature.

I was looking down into the Skagit River to see the upstream-swimming salmon, the Chinooks and Humpback—they were down there somewhere. “All salmon feel the urge to return to the exact place they were born before they die,” my Instructor explained. I kept looking but didn’t see any salmon pass, only temporary shadows of logs that appeared to be fish.

At nights after Mom was asleep, the Lone Ranger would read me Poe’s “Annabel Lee” and play his voice on a yo-yo string—fast then slow, rhythmic and free. It made me shiver and giggle. I had no idea Annabel Lee was Poe’s thirteen-year-old wife-cousin who died of TB. Judas often waxed poetic about his years in academia: “I used to refute Thomas Aquinas’s five proofs for God. My friends thought I was a real prude because I was above doing anything other than studying romantic poetry.” He buried his atheism the same year his mother kicked the bucket. One day he brought in a piece of birch and whittled out a cross the length of my forearm. Then he painted it white and hung it on the wall beside a small picture of Milly, his mother, who wore gold-rimmed glasses and had orange hair. I always thought the gold-orange-white combination made for a nice wall piece. Of course we (Sis and I) never mentioned or referred to the cross, mostly because we knew nothing about crucifixes. And we knew nothing about Jesus either because Pa was a bartender not a reverend. He ran the show down at a tavern located in the grimy Mexican part of town and when you drove by you always saw low-riders with dangling car dice and heard accordion music with Mexican lyrics. Hemingway called the barn-shaped building the “Pastime Tavern,” not because you just passed time there but because it was a place past time, where you could go and forget things, I suppose.

The truth is I’ve seen the inside only once. There was a long row of barstools, a rack of bottles behind the counter, a couple of pool tables, and extremely dim lights. Dim lights are necessary so that you can’t see the time that passes. When the Mexicans came in to drink they shot the bull with Jack Daniels, who came forth in their midst to be their poet, just like Walt Whitman. To passerby they probably seemed immobile and worthless and dumb. But to Walt they were fiery philosophers sipping fiery brew. He converted them just like he converted that shapeless piece of birch into a beautiful crucifix. Everyone knew my father because he attended big barbecue parties with prominent Mexicans like Ray Candia, who laughed deeply and wore a brawny mustache that twirled up at the ends.

In 1982, the Pastime Tavern went bankrupt and the usurers forced Andrew Jackson to return the property. Several years later the repossessed property burned to the ground, and I’m not calling Mr. O’Leary an arsonist but if someone had a motive it was him. When we drove past the scorches on Fairhaven Avenue he never looked and never said anything. In the tavern’s absence you could see the Mexican shacks that had stood behind it—the Mexicans drinking and pushing each other around, looking under the hoods of 1978 Oldsmobiles, teenagers on low-rider bikes, junk everywhere, hubcaps, transmissions, chickens, composts. Naked kids playing, some crying. It pained him to look. But part of Mark Hoss’s bitterness toward the tavern was incited by the zealots at AA who taught him to recite “Hello-my-name-is-Bill W.-and-I’m-an-alcoholic.” They say it every time, once a week, so that you never forget. You never forget you’re an alcoholic. There is no past tense and no past time—I am, I am, I am and forever will be. Mom says I have the genes for drinking, so I steer clear of the bottle.

But I didn’t refuse a little anesthesia when we were roughing it on top of the marble-less Marble Mountain and Rambo sent me to gather and chop wood. I hauled back waterlogged branches and placed them between two boulders. Once, twice, slice! My shoe was teeming with warm blood. The axe severed the nerves between my fat toe and its neighbor. “Lie down,” he said. “Elevate your foot.” I lay like a quiet lamb watching Hurricane Dave frantically tear down tent and tackle, throw food and stoves and sleeping bags and lamps, knives, jackets, books, baskets into our old pickup. The clothesline stayed. I thought about baseball and felt relieved that I didn’t have to pack up all the camping gear. After my stitches Paw revealed he had a duplicate scar in the exact same place from splitting timber when he was a boy. He pulled back the sock covering his size thirteen foot—ugly, callused, yellow, cracked. “Too coincidental,” I said. As I stared at my scar on his foot, I could feel my Chinook tail fin forming.

A lot of people warned us about the scars their friends had from motorcycle accidents, but that didn’t stop Harley and me from long weekend rides. Our best trip was an early spring ride following the serpentine Columbia river from Portland to Pendleton and then down to eastern Oregon’s Antelope. I liked it when he rode ahead because then I could see his motorcycle rise and lower with the contours of the road, with Fat Boy sometimes pointing, sometimes stopping. He wore an old, green army poncho that flapped wildly in the wind. For hours we rode quietly onward until the cold numbed our hands through, and when we finally stopped and dismounted, we walked stiff-legged and disjointedly, helmets in hand, into Joe’s One-Stop Hamburger Diner. Inside, the heat made my hands tingle and tambour, and I laughed with unstoppable, senseless laughter. People stared. When the waitress delivered our food she could hardly set the hamburgers down because of all the helmets and gloves and maps on our table. “How far is Antelope from here?” we asked. “Three hours,” she said. Our wrinkled map showed a two-lane highway winding all over the place. We looked up with grease-filled grins. “Tim to go,” we said. Time to go back to the long and windy road that extended endlessly into strange land. At dusk we pulled off into a lush green valley and camped beside a creek that gurgled—a prime setting for Wordsworth to compose. After setting up camp we both sat at the picnic table to read our books. Mine, All the Pretty Horses, his, The History of the Chippewa Indians. We said nothing. Only the creek’s deep gurgling. Gurgle, garble, gurble, hushhh. We read in the water’s rhythm, and I could feel the scales taking over my skin.

“Scales” is not exactly the word I would use to describe the blisters on my skin I got while proselyting under the Maracaibo sun trying to be a fisher of men. One day after the sun had set I decided to pen the Trickster an eight-page letter exposing the fallacies of the Catholic faith. At the time, Mother Teresa’s brother attended a Russian Orthodox Church and didn’t speak a wink of Russian. He dropped tears in long Latin processions while men in black robes bore candles and crucifixes and held gold-leafed Bibles high above their heads, marching past endless statues of saints and martyrs chanting Gregorian verse. “You can’t base your religion on aesthetics,” I told him. “You can’t join a church just because the windows are pretty.”

Keats’s incensed reply arrived a month later: “I thought I told you the answer to this. Beauty is not to be apologized for. It’s the nicest thing we have in the world, God’s greatest gift (see ‘The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo,’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins, which I’ve read to you since you were a baby).”

“God’s greatest gift?”

“Everything else you can explain, but not beauty, and that’s only a little bit a matter of opinion. It is a gift, it is recognizable, it is divine, and it will lead the pagan to God. African art sells in Oregon. Swinomish art appeals to Madagascarians. Line up all the women in the world, have all the men choose the most beautiful one, and you’ll end up with not more than a dozen women chosen as most beautiful, and that’s about as close to perfection as you can get. Choosing hundreds instead of a dozen argues for randomness, chaos, and meaninglessness only to the pigheaded.”

“You mean the ‘beauty is truth, truth beauty’ nonsense.”

“Try as they might, the most learned psychologist, the sharpest logician, the most knowledgeable aesthetician cannot explain the attraction; there is no logical explanation for beauty. Beauty is above reason, and at this point in the argument, only probably divine. (But to one alcoholic, enough to lead him back to God.)”

I couldn’t say anything. I was choking on his incense. But I also thought he wrote beautiful prose, which counted for something. As I wrote back, I could feel my gills breathing.

After my ecclesiastical sojourn I visited the secluded Salinger in his little shack by the river. Orange-haired Milly and her white cross hung serenely on the wall, and I could see that she had made friends with King David, the Penitent’s patron saint. He wanted St. Francis, but his priest chose David. St. Francis wore a plain brown robe and could talk to birds. He found beauty in the simple, so the story goes. But no birds came to Il Penseroso’s window. He lived alone—no cats (thought he did want a Siamese and a standard-sized poodle when he retired).

I found Don Juan hooked up to the Internet sending e-mails to South American women and still wallowing in Romanticism. “Even the poorest Latinos sing and dance happily in the streets,” he said. “We can learn a lot from our South American cousins.” He showed me mathematical sketches of a ten-thousand-dollar retirement pool he was going to construct in Alabama after he bids farewell to his employers, and he asked me to use my calculus to approximate how much cement he would need to fill a rounded bottom. I stayed at his home a couple of days, but there wasn’t any room for me to sleep—no beds, and no room on the floor. His house was barely bigger than my dorm room at college, except that he had three times as much stuff—junk stuff, dumb stuff, garage-sale trash stuff: a blow gun in the corner, ammunition recasing machines on the table, economy magazines on the desk, African statues, yellow-paged paperbacks stacked under the bed, a loaded pistol sitting on the television, and another hanging from a holster wrapped around a lamp, broken thermometers, an old recorder, newspapers. Once he lost his pistol and couldn’t find it for days. While I was examining the various knick-knack mounds, I found a postcard of a naked woman in psychedelia. She had love handles and sinuous snake tattoos. Seeing me examine her, Larry Flint said from the far end of the room, “She appears on national public television once a week, dons her best birthday suit, and does a slow motion dance for a good half-hour. I wrote her once for fun and she put me on her mailing list.” I stared hard at the postcard. What was he thinking? She was intriguing, though, with the psychedelic or “rainbow” spectrum dancing on her body.

At night I slept on a small armchair that I managed to curl up in only by kinking my neck hard to the right. My eyes opened at 5:00 A.M., and in the cold and dark I could see him—a large lump under a blanket that rose and fell with sounds of a stentorian snore. Hours passed. I stared at the walls in silence, waiting. Wake up will you! His Byzantine picture of King David glared down at me, punishing me. When Rip Van Winkle finally awoke, his cheeks were shriveled and pruned because he didn’t have his dentures in, and he paraded form bed to bathroom in tighty-whities. I didn’t laugh because I didn’t have the energy to laugh. I had the energy to leave, to hide his dentures and ride away on the Suzuki 1000 parked in front.

King Shayrar was living alone because his third wife, Rita Arana from Trujillo, Peru, had recently left him. Rita had been hanging out in Florida on a temporary visa that was going to fold in two weeks when the king shipped her out to Seattle on a 727 because it was obvious in their letters they loved (needed) each other. Rita had curly hair, olive skin, and a small black mole on her right cheek. Her tight jeans didn’t complement her abundant curves, and her English was broken and bare. However, what she could say very well was “Waht? Repeet plees, waht?” I knew Spanish but held my tongue because I was a jealous Hamlet and I never got an invitation and never went to the wedding because it consisted of nothing more than a crowded trailer ceremony with two witnesses and a Roman Catholic priest, to whom I know Brother Pablo paid a hefty sum for annulling his previous marriage. Surprisingly, the two witnesses were Rita’s parents up from Trujillo to sell silver and llama rugs.

Abishag brought two new children into King David’s life: fourteen-year-old Arturo who was “slow and horky at soccer,” as Péle described him; and seventeen-year-old Cecilia, who shook her bottom in a mildly attractive manner while she vacuumed and listened to Peruvian rap. Cecilia was later knocked up by a Mexican boy who married her the next summer. Confucius always told me: “I may not be an expert at living with women, but I recognize the need.” Three years later, after Rita got her permanent visa, she also got a divorce. Now she lives in the trailer and Job lives two hours south.

With Rita gone, Sis and I had him back to ourselves the next Christmas. He was sixty-two then, and we all went over to my sister’s wood-floored house to eat Christmas dinner. After the food was gone we talked for hours. My sister had a large bong resting in the corner of the living room (which she got, naturally, at a garage sale) and I asked her exactly what it was. Woodstock knew what it was, but he kept quiet. Liz then offered Sober a beer, even though for the past seventeen years he had been bragging about how he hadn’t “touched a drop since ’81.” Liz’s offer provoked him into a dissertation on alcohol’s horrible monster, but after dinner we were able to divert him by picking over the books in my sister’s bookshelfThe Scientific Search for the SoulThe Mind of a MnemonistThe Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat—all books from the semester Liz was a neuroscience major.

Between the rows of neuroscience books, he pulled out Paradise Lost. He flipped through, searching for a passage somewhere in the middle, something about the fall of Adam and Even, and read it aloud to us. His eyes glossed over and changed red and teardrops drove down his cheeks. It happened so quickly we didn’t have time to react, so we just stared. His voice caressed some lines and proclaimed others. When he finished we were still staring at him, like nursery children. The passage dealt with Adam’s fall from bliss, and that was why my father was crying, or he was crying about something Milton had said of Even, or of Adam. I don’t know. I couldn’t understand and I wasn’t really listening anyway—I was staring at his eyes. Why was he crying? There was nothing there to cry about. Nothing but a bunch of stuffy English pretension. In the Critic’s eyes I saw a stranger. His eyes pure blue, mine pure green.

Actually I knew exactly what he was talking about and what was going on inside his head. But at the time I was ferociously pursuing the sciences, studying calculus six hours a day and reading books like Conversations with Scientific Geniuses and Exploding Suns because I was going to figure out things like warp speed and energy transformation. I constantly led our discussions to fractals and chaos theory and felt smug explaining to Little Bo Peep the difference between Einstein’s General and Special Theories of Relativity as well as drawing space-time diagrams to facilitate his comprehension. In the back of my mind I knew precisely why his tears had fallen, but I pretended ignorance. Even so I could sense my fish eyes rounding, moving out towards the sides of my head.

When I decided I did want to understand I bought a one-way Greyhound ticket to Burlington, Washington. Burlington is the place I grew up, and I walked around our old trailer, sauntered across the dirt fields that were on the far side of the property and looked at them sadly. They were barren now, the farmers bankrupt. Beside the dirt fields ran a long gray road, a levee road, which I walked down. The road projected narrowly into the distance. I strolled slowly and hoped it would take me somewhere. Hours and hours I stepped, all day. Gravel scrunched under my shoes but was muted by the rush of the Skagit River, only a little way off. I saw a trail branching off to the side, and I took it. The dirt path dropped fast. I tried climbing down but the ground was wet and I slipped. Stumbling I rolled down onto the riverbank and when I got up I was standing in the exact place I had stood with my father when I was ten looking to see the salmon run. I moved to the river’s edge to look for salmon, and I saw thousands, snapping their tails back and forth, thrusting upstream, abundantly alive, filled with tremendous energy, beautiful, holy. I knelt down and kissed the water. The water was moving fast and deep. I stuck my hand out into the strong current; it pushed back. The river extended forward forever. It would take me, one-way. “Jump in!” it said. A gurgling in my blood pressed up, and I dove in head first into the cold, stinging, natural water. I fought the current hard, swimming arduously past fishing lures and floating logs and small boats with outboard motors, past large rocks, cascade drops, drifting trash. I swam upstream for hours. Then days, months. I could think of nothing but finding my point of origin. My spine whipped back and forth, flipping my tail side to side and thrusting forward. The current pushed back, but I drove ahead.

I dreamed of the day I would arrive, with tired fins and sore gills, to the spot from which I came into the world. I would glide around the large rock atop which my mother spawned, and the empty space would reverberate inside me, move the marrow of my bones. My heart would beat fast and my blood pump hot. There would be a rock, a place all my own. Perhaps the surface would be porous and brittle, the corners cragged or round. But there was never any such place. Nothing, ever. I drifted downstream, alone, exhausted. My salmon body swirled in the eddies and bobbed up and down in the current. River logs ripped apart my scaly skin as I drifted farther and farther toward a sunset horizon until finally, in the darkening distance, my shrinking body disappeared.

This semester I’m registered for a class on Edgar Allen Poe. We’ll probably study “Annabel Lee,” and I’ll probably give a presentation on it in class. My father e-mailed me the other day about a lady from Pakistan:

               Since April of this year I have been corresponding with Ms. Ambreen Sadullah of
               Karachi, Pakistan, consequent upon our meeting electronically through the personal
               ads, and, as you might imagine, this correspondence has provided hours of enjoyable
               fantasizing. . . .She was considering emigrating to Canada, for the express purpose
               of being closer to me so we could meet and see if we are as compatible in person as
               we are on the e-mail. She reckons she can get the necessary visa by the end of January.
               To fish or cut bait, the time grows near to decide which to do. I would be interested
               in your input.

To fish or cut bait. That’s perfect, old man. You already caught me long ago, in your “kingdom by the sea.”