Skip to main content

Riding the Water

by Shannon Murdock

Arriving in Alaska is like sinking into the ocean: deep, gray and alien. There is too much water. It whirlpools around me as the plane descends, squeezing my lungs and deafening my ears. I can’t survive forty days here. I resist a churning at the base of my stomach that begs me to stand and scream out a mutiny call to the passengers around me. Two seats away, through the round window of the plane, the sun rises over a flat horizon. I suck in my breath and blow it slowly out into the dim air of the cabin. No, I should not scream, although I’m almost sure the plane is approaching the edge of the world . . . almost sure I’m traveling past the worst nightmares of the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria.

My Alaskan room is painted gray and smells of freezer burned fish. The sign on the door reads, Attention all fishermen and cannery workers: We are experiencing extreme drought conditions. Please conserve as much water as possible. If there is no water, there are no fish. If there are no fish, there is no work.

They have an entire ocean here and they think this is a drought? I drop the door’s padlock on the tree trunk that serves aptly as furniture for the crude plywood living compartment. Draping my jacket over the wire hanger that rocks beneath my solitary shelf, I curl up in the brown-blanketed hollow of my concave mattress. Just thirty-nine more days until I can go home, I tell myself. I shut my eyes and imagine I am there, embraced again by the gentle curve of the canal bank and the heady fragrance of Russian Olives in bloom.

I am my father’s dark-haired girl, running barefoot across irrigated pastures, laughing at the screams of outraged killdeer. Dad smiles, watching the water sink into his land, watching me. Water rushes past him, black and mysterious in the channel carved by four generations of his farming ancestors. It flows west into the setting sun—to places Dad has never been and will never see. He leans against his shovel and watches it go. Dad is a shadow in the red splendor of the western sky, looking and breathing, solid as the land.

On my first day of work, fifteen earplugged women are with me in the can-inspection loft. In the middle of the room, heavy green machines roar like mythic demons. Feeding them is our job. We wear thick leather gloves as we roll stacks of empty tin cans back and forth along white plastic tables, looking for flaws in the metal that might cause improper sealing. My eyes have to move very quickly to catch the defects. But I can’t complain; this work is easier than any I’ve ever been paid for.

The smell of fish wanders up from the factory floor as I wipe a grease mark from the edge of a can. Although I tell myself that I came here for money, I think I’m lying. I have stood too long on the dry earth of my canal bank and watched enviously as the water flowed past me. It rolled benignly through cattail stands and under clouds of mayfly lovers toward a “world out there” that existed on television but never breached the surface of my own reality. The water was smooth and quick, full of lights that danced on my eyelashes. But those fires scattered like a school of minnows when I tried to touch them. My flesh was of Idahoan clay, fertilizer for potatoes destined for Relief Society casseroles.

The can loft overlooks the patching line, where Filipino women snatch defective cans off conveyor belts. They must inspect three cans per second, flipping them over and back to check for defects that might compromise the steaming and sealing process. The women wear blue plastic aprons and cotton liners beneath their rubber gloves to keep their fingers warm. Their noses and smiles are wide beneath their hairnets as I watch them sip hot chocolate in the break room. My roommate says working on the patching line will destroy the women’s wrists within four years.

To the left of the patching line is the slime line, where the fish are prepared for canning. Wearing yellow rain gear and rubber boots, Filipino and Mexican men stand on either side of a conveyor belt. Knives in hand, they wait for the fish. The men see to it that the fins are cut off and membranes are scraped from the inner cavity. Another conveyor belt drops the fish into a ponderous cast-iron monster to be cubed and packed into cans.

The safest, easiest, driest jobs are in the can loft. I feel lucky to have been placed up here. As the days go by, however, I grow more nauseated to hear the patching line thunder on below me. With some sense of disgust, I look around the warm can loft with its clean orange floors and walls lined with pallets of cans waiting to be inspected. Nearly all of my co-workers are young white women. I look down at the Filipinos standing on either side of the machines and brace my white wrists against the banister. I hate my hands for being white. I hate them for being small and soft and healthy. I hate standing up here, warm and dry . . . but I don’t want to live the rest of my life with injured wrists or missing fingers, so I don’t say anything.

I watch the men here. They are short and have laugh-lined faces. Before dinner last night, a white-haired Filipino opened the door of the cafeteria for me and quietly murmured, “Ladies first.” On my way back from dinner, I stopped unseen beneath a staircase to listen to a Mexican man sing slow Spanish love songs into the gray, sunless sky.

Lee is the Union Steward for the Filipino women. He is also one of the two men who are privileged enough to work up here in the can loft. I am directed to join his inspection line, and within a few minutes of my arrival he introduces himself and touches the curve of my back as he explains “how this place works.” His eyes are small dark marbles sunk into the flesh of his forehead. A Harley-Davidson shirt stretches over the bulge of his stomach like a hot-air balloon before it disappears into the elastic of his gray sweatpants. Lee rubs the palm of his hand over his stubbled chin as he stares at the man who has just walked through the door. “Now that’s Pete,” he says in his heavy Wisconsin accent. “He’s a good guy. Been my friend for ten years. But you can’t trust him! He’s one of the bosses, and he’ll always be on the side of Management.” Lee punctuates his language with irrational profanity. Every now and then he yells something like “Pardon my French,” laughs, and then goes on.

I don’t respond to him much over the deafening roar of the machines because I am convinced he could carry on his idea of a conversation with me if I were a railroad tie roughly hewn into the shape of a woman. In the week and a half that I’ve worked beside him, he’s asked me to live with him in Alaska this winter and informed me that if he were to convert to my religion, he’d never want to have more than two wives at once. He yells all of this into my plugged ear, his breath hot and wet on my neck.

Despite the repulsion I feel toward Lee, I can’t help asking him, as the days of layoffs and delays go by, when he thinks the major runs of salmon will come. “Oh, they’re usually here by now” he says. “It may be the drought that keeping them away. But you don’t need to start worrying your pretty little head until the Fourth of July. By then you should see what real work is like. Eighteen hour days! All of us here, working together . .”

This Fourth of July is the first I’ve spent away from my family. The entire cannery has been laid off for lack of fish, and I have passed the day reading my Book of Mormon and making predictions with my friends on the arrival of the salmon. The fishermen say that the fish would come if there were more water in the river. The lack of work exhausts me, and I put on eyeliner and mascara to make myself feel better.

My roommate, Katy, says one of the lakes nearby would be great for a beach parry tonight. She and Tiffany make plans: Who is going to pick up the alcohol? Will they buy the more economical hard liquor or splurge on a $40 pack of beer? Tiffany asks me what I think as I’m lying on my bed reading scriptures. Recognizing the awkward moment, Katy tells Tiffany that I’m a Mormon. She clarifies that I don’t drink or smoke or swear but will someday be a “kick-butt religion teacher.” Tiffany bobs her head open-mindedly and says, “That’s cool, that’s cool.” It’s the first time anyone has tried to reassure me that being LDS isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

I’ve never been to a drinking parry before and am still trying to decide whether or not it’s against my religion to attend when Alyssa opens the door and aims a grin between my eyes. She’s here to inform me that Eric will be at the party tonight, following up her speech with, “So will you be coming too, Shannon?” She grins devilishly. Alyssa knows I have fallen for Eric over hot chocolate in the break room. After a brief moment of thought, I slap my scriptures closed, gather up my towel and shampoo and makeup, and am off to the shower . . . still hoping this isn’t against my religion.

Eric and I sit side by side on the shore of the shallow lake. He says that he doesn’t like to drink very much. The declaration makes the muscles in my back relax because now I know I’ll have a sober companion to talk with this evening. Removing my shoes, I dig my toes into the sand. The gritty contact reminds me of home. Eric speaks softly, telling me what Los Angeles is like. His eyes are blue, rimmed with the color of midnight, but I cannot look at them because it’s nearly 11:00 and the sun is beginning to set. The lake ripples in golds and reds and pinks. Clouds above the small trees in the west gleam more enthusiastically than the water itself. They float across the sky like a silent autumnal exclamation. On the far side of the lake a family is camped out with coolers and hotdogs. Their laughter sprints over the crests and troughs of waves like pistachio shells blown along a sidewalk in a stiff breeze. Someone lights a firework and a cheer is let up at the fiery colors. I laugh at the puny display. Why aren’t they watching the sunset?

I am going to tell Eric that I’m LDS even though Katy has warned me against it. “The general perception people here have about Christians,” she had said, “is that they’re closed-minded hypocrites. Some people may even hate you just for being Mormon.” Will Eric be one of those who hates me if I tell him I’m Mormon?

“So tell me about yourself,” he says, interrupting my thoughts.

I close my eyes and swallow hard. My diaphragm tenses against my filled lungs, preparing to push the words past my vocal cords: “Well, I’m Mormon.” And then it’d done. I’ve said it.

“What’s ‘Mormon’?” he asks, and I let out a sigh like a prayer.

I can’t stop smiling as I walk back to my bunkhouse after having left the parry at midnight. In my mind I replay all of Eric’s words to me. “Do you want to go watch a movie tomorrow if we don’t have work?” he asked. Before tonight, I never understood why some people carve their names in wet sidewalks or benches or tree trunks. But at this moment my fingers are aching to press the shape of a heart into wood or stone, outlining the words “Shannon + Eric.”

When Tesla, Natalie, Eric and I walk in, a television is set up in one corner of the library. Two men who look like they were born in black leather and chains are watching a movie in stiff library chairs, blond biker braids trailing halfway down their backs. Eric and I sit at a table behind them. The one on the left leans over and says, “The animation of the characters is fantastic!” The other replies, “Yeah, I expected it to be professional, but what I’m seeing now is just marvelous . . . better by far than what I had envisioned.” They are watching The Lion King.

The movie ends and the leathered men make squeaking noises as they stand up, check out some books, and exit the one-roomed library. Eric wants to watch Braveheart. I don’t watch R-rated movies but Eric sits on one of the couches and invites me to sit next to him. Hating myself a little bit, I walk around the couch, past the door, past the PG-rated movies, past all of the other chairs in the room and take a seat next to Eric. When the sex scene comes on, I tell him I’m going to go see if Tesla is still outside or if she has gone back to the bunkhouse.

I feel as though I can breathe again as I step out into the sunshine. I know Tesla has gone back to the cannery, but I pretend that I think she’s next door in the furrier shop so that I’ll have to go look for her there. “Would you like me to get one of the hats down off the wall for you to see?” the man on the other side of the oily black counter asks. I look at the $200 price-tag on the hat nearest to me and say, “No thanks, I’m just looking.”

He presses me with, “It’s no problem, really,” and I wonder if the sex scene in the library is over yet.

“No, thanks,” I say again, and am out the door.

The air in the library is thick, and all eyes turn on me when I open the door. The newlywed couple on the screen pull their clothes back on while I’m getting comfortable again next to Eric. The movie is long and all of the battle scenes make me want to cry. I bury my head into Eric’s shoulder and say, “Tell me when it’s over. “

Tesla is reading in her room when I get back from the library. She asks me what movie we watched. “ Braveheart,” I answer sullenly.

“Oh, I hate movies like that,” she says. “It bugs me to watch violence against women.” Why didn’t I follow Tesla out the door when she left the library? She looks up from her book again. “Hey, I thought Mormons didn’t watch R-rated movies.”

I have found extra work this evening on the cleanup crew. I’m afraid that the salmon simply aren’t going to return this year and I’m not going to have enough money to pay for my plane ticket home. Right now, I am standing beneath a cascade of waste water singing “There is Sunshine in My Soul” and trying to sweep fish guts between two poles with a broken broom. Hair is sticking to my face and my skin itches beneath my yellow raingear. Someone taps me on the shoulder. I turn to see Eric jump away from the stream of water shaking an intestine off his hand as he runs back to Carlos, the cleanup foreman. Carlos, in yellow overalls with thickly folded arms stares at me, shaking his head incredulously. “Follow us!” Eric yells over the noise of the factory floor. I lean my broom against a pole and run after him toward the door. He and Carlos are talking in the pale sunshine of the evening. Eric glances at me, smiles, and turns to leave, having just taken an order from Carlos.

“What’s going on?” I ask, pulling my hat off and shaking the ponytail out of my damp hair.

Carlos takes off his sunglasses and his eyes are dancing as he says, “What the hell were you doing in there?” I laugh at the way the curse sounds in his heavy Brazilian accent.

“Sweeping,” I answer on the crest of fading mirth.

“No, no, no,” he chides, staring at my loosened hair as we begin walking. “You don’t have to do that dirty work. From now on, you work for me.”

I am easily persuaded on this point and laugh lightly as we approach the group of people Carlos has assembled to clean the Egg House. Eric is among them with a tank of sanitizing chemicals and a sprayer strapped to his back like a Ghostbuster. Both of us blush when we make eye contact, and I feel like slapping myself for wondering if I’m in love.

“What are you doing?” I ask Katy as she struggles through the narrow doorway of our room with a mattress. She grins excitedly.

“We’re having a slumber parry tonight, remember? Don’t tell him I told you this, but Eric said that he’s really looking forward to it. And Alyssa just happened to mention that she saw him drawing ‘Eric + Shannon’ hearts in the blood and guts of the egg-sorting table this morning.”

I smile, amazed at the thought that he could be interested in me at the same time I’m interested in him. Then I feel my eyebrows gather. “Wait,” I say, “is this a co-ed sleepover?” Katy throws me a “Where-have-you-been?” look, and I fall back down on my pillow. I’m pretty sure co-ed sleepovers are against my religion.

Truth or Dare is the game of choice for tonight’s party. Everyone is laughing except for me. I am watching Eric’s eyelids wrinkle above his straight white grin. He seems too beautiful to be my type.


I snap my eyes up, hoping no one caught that dream-struck Marsha Brady expression I’m pretty sure I was wearing. “What?”

“Truth or Dare?’ I hate this game. “Truth,” I say. That can’t get me into too much trouble.

“What’s the wildest thing you’ve ever done on a school bus?”

I relate the story of the time I changed out of my dress behind a friend’s coat one night on the way home from a choir trip. The crowd groans. My story isn’t nearly as thrilling as the previous ones. After a few more excursions into truths I never wanted to know, I decide that it’s time for me to find somewhere to sleep. In the hallway Tesla offers me her room if I want it. I call her an angel and walk back to the party to say good-night. Alyssa’s expression brightens when she sees me appear in the doorway. I think she is about to say something to me when she suddenly rolls her head to the side and bursts out, “Eric! Truth or Dare?”

Eric groans. “Truth.”

Alyssa glances up at me briefly before pressing on with her pedagogical voice. “To whom are you most attracted out of all the people in this room?” Oh, I want to die. Eric’s face reddens and he turns his eyes to the blanket-littered floor. I turn away so that I won’t have to watch the awkward moment.

“That would have to be Shannon,” I hear him say. When I turn back he is watching me. Questions slip off his eyebrows and have time to flutter to the mattress before I remember to respond. I grin into his face and the party lets up a collective “Awe,” interspersed with one or two variations of “Aren’t they cute?” The game continues, and after considering Eric’s enlivened face for a few more moments, I quietly turn away from the laughter and walk into Tesla’s room.

Easing down onto Tesla’s tightly made bed, I think about my first kiss at four years old. The Calderas were migrant workers. That morning my sister Audrey and I made the long walk across the field to their house. Audrey was playing dolls with Obdulia when the oldest boy asked me if I wanted to go out and play tag with him. Juan led me behind a tree on the canal bank and threatened, “If you don’t kiss me, I’m gonna pull down your pants and spank your bare bottom by the side of the road so that all of the passing cars can see what you look like naked.” I started crying before I was able to make a reply, and the teenage boy bent down and kissed my teary lips. Several times more he kissed me before I could squirm out of his grip. I cried all the way home, wiping Juan’s saliva off my cheek and mouth as my feet plodded into the soft dirt of the newly plowed field.

My triceps are burning as I push water and bloody debris toward the open drains in the floor. My broom breaks. It occurs to me that working up a sweat like this kind of defeats the purpose of wearing waterproof rain gear. I reach down to retrieve a flounder from the slimy waste spread over the concrete floor. What a strange fish this is: both eyes squished together on one side of its head, its underside white and flat like an undercooked pancake. I carry it with my whole hand as I walk toward the grinder, feeling the smoothness of its skin and thinking it a tragedy that it happened to be among the meager population of salmon when the fishermen’s net came by. I lift the grinder’s heavy metal lid from the floor and pause for a moment, listening to the sound of the black expansiveness below. It’s a wide sound punctuated by the dripping of water and far-off waves lapping against the shore beneath the dock. A putrid breeze like the breath of Hades wraps itself around my head. I drop the flounder and don’t pause to hear its body hit the blades before I let the lid slam back down into place.

“Hey Shannon!” Eric says as he bursts into my room. “Wanna come play cards?”

I groan as I turn over in my narrow bed. “What time is it? Eleven-thirty? I don’t know how to play poker,” I say, glad that I don’t have to lie. I don’t say that I don’t believe in playing cards.

“That’s okay! ‘We’re playing B.S.”

Eric’s voice is animated and I love the way it sounds when he talks to me. He holds my name tenderly, a newborn infant cradled in his words. “I am so weak,” I silently murmur as I pull myself into a sitting position.

Set up outside the bunkhouse door in the cool evening breeze, the card table consists of a newly painted picnic table and an extension of several boards laid across three logs. I sit down beside Katy. She lays her cigarette aside, and her stale breath curls around me as she welcomes me with a friendly greeting. I wait to cough until she has turned back to her cards. The game begins. It doesn’t take long to realize that B.S. isn’t as tame here as it was with my brothers and sisters. Our protests had been more along the lines of “Nuh-uh,” or “No sir,” or “I don’t believe you,” to call a bluff. These players, however, fly past substitute curses into a realm of profanity I never imagined existed. In drunken joy they float out, spit out, scream out sharp expletives into the air with the ease of professional smoke-blowers. One mouths the shape for a hazy blue doughnut while another sends an arrow through its center. They laugh like hyenas upon one another’s shoulders, teasing and swearing and shouting. Junior leans over the table and pulls his black Raiders jacket closer around his neck against the ocean breeze. “Whose turn is it?” he asks. Jenna is just ending a hard bout of laughter and cannot answer that it’s her turn. She sighs weakly onto Mike’s shoulder and passes him the can of beer they are sharing.

On the other side of Katy, Dave, the Tennessean, laughs easily and drawls, “I think it’s Jenna’s turn.” I cough again as clouds of smoke continue to condense from all directions to a five-inch area around my nose. Mike helps Jenna take her turn. Eric throws down two cards, claiming that they are queens. Junior goes. I think he is bluffing. Using my old standby I say, “Nuh-uh,” and turn over his cards. I’m wrong. Tucking them into my hand with the others, I look up to see if anyone noticed my lack of expletives in calling the bluff. Eric’s eyes scintillate with amusement as he watches me across the table. My cheeks feel hot and I look away.

I’m losing terribly; cards are piling up and no one believes me when I try to lie. A guy reeking of marijuana sits down next to me, his shoulder and thigh hot against mine. Leaning over, he says, “I think you’re gonna win,” as if it were the most wonderful compliment he’s ever given anyone. He stares at me nakedly, hungrily, possessively. My chest hollows a little. His pupils bleed into his irises, flat and dead-looking. The whites of his eyes are yellowed with red veins furrowing across them like a river delta.

When Eric walks me back to my room, he tells me I am the worst liar he has ever seen.

I watch my arms push the door shut behind Eric. In the dimness of the room I can still see some of the scars that crosshatch my skin: sandbagging wounds. I close my eyes as I think of that exhausting day in the sun almost one month ago. Ten hours of work on the decaying bank of the Snake River smeared my arms with sand and blood. Even my brain had numbed from examining the terrible irony that, although we had been praying for this water since I was in Primary, our earnest pleas were now that the water would stop coming. Our cup was running over, drowning our crops, crumbling our bridges, eroding our roads, and ruining our homes. And here we finally were: an army of farmers and farmers’ children, throwing and catching sandbags with our backs toward the diked river, our faces to the sun and our feet sunk into the dark mud of our home. Water is a destroyer.

Eric is with us when we decide to walk down to the bay for the last time to watch the sunset. On the rocky beach we are careful to sidestep the tight-skinned bodies of rotting salmon and flounder that are scattered about. Wind howls in from the sea. “Jeez, my hands are cold,” Eric says.

“Oh, I’ll warm them up for you,” I say, and grab the hand he’s about the put into his pocket. Suddenly, I find myself walking along the beach holding hands with this gorgeous guy. His fingers are cold. Is this the way holding hands is supposed to be? I thought there was supposed to be some kind of tingling up and down the arm . . . or at least interlocking fingers. Why do I feel like he’s holding my hand the way he would a suitcase? Is this normal?

“Shannon,” Eric says, “Do you think you’ll ever leave the Mormon community?”

“No,” I reply, surprised that I don’t even hesitate for the sake of etiquette. “It’s in my heart. It’s part of me.”

Eric looks off toward Russia. His fingers are still cold, so I rub them rapidly between both of my hands and place all five back into his pocket. I am coming to realize that I will leave Eric forever when I go home. I won’t ask for his address or his telephone number. I will leave him like a river that has found another course.

I have been in Alaska forty days and forty nights, but the salmon have not come. Sitting on the dock outside the cannery, I am wearing yellow raingear, rubber work boots, my favorite gray T-shirt, and my grungy old baseball cap. I feel like a farmer surveying his harvested field. The sun is glinting off the slate-colored bay. Seagulls, with the gray and black of the sea in their wings, are as thick as snow on Christmas Eve as they dive toward the water to snatch up the waste particles of fish meat the cannery pumps out now at the end of the day. The water that laps against the shore still seems like a flood to me; the natives won’t stop calling it a drought.  Whatever the reason, I’m glad the salmon have stayed away this year. I’m glad I’ve been left to wonder why they haven’t fought their way upstream. I believe I’ve never struggled so much in forty days. And I believe I’ve never traveled so far from home.