By Annie Raab
Every morning at 7:30 she arrived at the fish house on the spitting lure of the ocean town. She walked up to the third floor of the bright yellow building and donned herself in a white cooking smock. She knifed the burlap bag open and poured the prawns into the cold metal sink. Every morning she started at the top, holding each prawn by the tail and spiral ripping the shells down the length of the soft fleshy body. She worked from the top of the pile to the bottom, discarding the shells in the trash and the naked prawns in the sink. Once all the prawns had been peeled, she unstuck the paring knife from the magnetic strip and sliced them down the length of their back, removing the stringy brown organ inside.
She did this at 7:30 every morning in the narrow yellow building between the harbor and the ocean. She would stand peeling, half facing the window to the ocean, and watch the charter boats depart on their daylong fishing tours. The sun was slow to affect the town. The people slept in boats and in tents near the water. The overgrown evidence of an Alaskan summer bloomed up the sides of rusty trailers. It took her all morning to prepare the prawns. The rest of the day she skewered them for the grill, order by order. She worked with two girls who were too special to clean prawns, too pretty and clean. They came in at 8 and tousled dry their wet hair, removing precious bracelets from their arms and changing from nice blouses to chef coats. They began preparing the salad. They diced carrots, sliced onions, removed the ugly part of the lettuce. They set aside coolers of oysters, set aside the tools for shucking, prepared the dishes to be served. They never volunteered to clean the prawns. The girl learned to meditate in the disarming of each and every prawn.
At 9 her boss would come. They could hear him on the floor of the restaurant below, starting the coffee and cursing the mess. Sometimes he would run the vacuum and they knew the morning would be long. He would crash up the stairs and yell for them to hurry, yell that the charters were in season and they would be getting it fresh real soon. Yelling, “I didn’t hire beautiful girls to stand around looking beautiful, I hired them to work their butts off!” Sometimes he skipped the vacuum and came up holding wads of cash, yelling for the girls to get up on the grills and dance. He threw his money bill by bill on top of the grill and the girls just rolled it off. They would nod and speed up and she would clean her prawns a little faster, looking out the window on her side to watch the charters push off into the sun-drenched ocean. The last one she always waited for, it was her marker that she only had 100 more prawns to clean. She watched The Valiant loading its gear and captain Vick helping the jacketed passengers aboard.
Every morning at 11 her boss’s brother would ride in on his flat rusty bike and start running the dishwasher. The restaurant beneath them opened and the tourists started early. His brother ran the dishwasher, he could not cook or prepare for he shook uncontrollably. Often he would smoke cigarettes while running the dishes and his head would shake so hard the ash would fall right off the tip—right into the sink of dirty white dishes. The other girls pitied him, but she knew better. She yelled for him to hurry with the dishes just the same as if he didn’t shake.
The charters come back every evening. They bring their catches into the yellow building. On the bottom floor the fish are delivered. On the top floor they are prepared. It is her job to cut off the heads and save them for chum. It is his job to remove the skin. The girl watches her boss in his chain mail gloves rip the skin with practiced slices of theknife. He tears the glittering scales upwards from the wet oily blade. Together they split the fish and bone it, going through the flesh with tweezers. Together they lob off an end and put it away for themselves. They send the fish to the girl at the fryer or the girl at the grill and all together they send the fish down to the restaurant and the waitress sends it to the table, where the lucky victors of Vick’s Valiant charter feast in sweet reward.
In the morning, the girl arrives early and decides to walk on the shore. The sun is out but not yet alive so she zips up her coat and goes to the water. Gulls churn lightly in the air above her. They pick out the living scabs of jetsam on the dense and silky sand. The grey air moves upwards with the building waves. She watches the charter boats rock gently at their posts and it all seems to pacify the rearing chaos of the ocean. The sun hits the tall yellow building and she watches the other two girls get out of their cars and unlock the door. She waits for them to go inside before she starts walking back, flexing her fingers in her pockets to warm for the task ahead.
The Valiant gets a slower start this morning: when she is left with only 50 prawns to clean. The sun is bright and the window is open to let the ocean breeze in the kitchen. She slices a prawn and listens to Captain Vick shout at his crew to prepare the tour faster. She watches a family of seven, of varying ages and weight (but mostly in the upper parts of both) struggle to tie their life jackets right and stop to pose for pictures. Captain Vick shouts again and starts looping the rope around his elbow. He says to prepare to embark. The large family stumbles on the slow moving boat as they wrestle with their city legs and life vests. She watches them rock away slowly from the harbor, fishing gear in tow and opulent nets hanging off the side. The last prawn is clean and all are ready for skewering. The Valiant has disappeared on the silvery-blue horizon.
The charters are replaced that day with ships. Entities of steel and color pull up to the harbor and unload their ardent cargo. The fish flies around the kitchen and the brother drops several plates in his shaky hands. Her boss is yelling, trying to keep his head in the panic, manning the grill and fryer and directing all at once. She and the girls divide up the work. She offers to shuck every oyster needed until it calms. She wedges the dull pointed object into the soft part of the shell and pries them open one after another. The oysters expose their mucous membranes and are sent down on plates of ice with lemons. Her wrists are sore and her hands are cut up. The salt water hurts her palms and when nobody is looking she sucks on them for the healing and the pleasure.
When the charter boats return that evening, the catch is less than usual. She and her boss prepare the fish and wait in boredom for more boats to return. She watches out the window for Captain Vick and The Valiant to return, but the boat does not return. Her boss leans back on the table and exhales. He smiles and pulls out a wad of cash to joke, but he sees she is tired and sends her home instead. He turns to the fry cook and throws money in the air until the fry cook rolls her eyes and frowns.
In the morning she does not stop to look out at the water. She goes up the stairs, removes her coat and buttons up the starch white shirt. She cuts open the burlap and empties the prawns into the sink. She starts to peel, yawning and waiting for the sun to wake her up. She drifts off into the motions of the work. The prawns ease her hands awake. She strips their shells so carefully now and has learned to love their smell. She drifts back into a time of peace, before she moved to Alaska, before she left her lover, before she could enjoy the simple rewards of human hands. There was a time like that before, months ago although it seemed much longer. The ocean distressed her at night—it’s gnawing and hissing through the window of her damp and tiny home kept her from resting untroubled. In her dreams it sucked her in. Fish whirled around her with plate-sized eyes and gaping mouths. The prawns swam beneath her, keeping her afloat with the speed of their strokes. She would reach her hands into the shoal and feel the creatures brush through her fingers. Don’t let me die here, she would ask, I have done so much for you. The darkness in the ocean roared around her.
The door banged shut downstairs and her boss came drudging up, hangover imposed upon his head. He grabbed a warm beer from storage and popped it open on the grill. He did not make his usual game of ‘dance for money’, but nursed his breakfast quietly. She kept at the prawns, counting when she saw the bottom layer spread out in the sink. It was the second day in a row the take-off of The Valiant had been and unreliable marker. When she could fit the last of the prawns into her cupped hands she rested to look out the window. The chaos and damage of the ships was there. Something on the beach looked distinguished from the standard tourist wreckage, and she leaned out the open window for a better look. A crowd of charter boat captains and crew were slowly walking towards a pile of objects. She thought they looked familiar in the distance but she couldn’t quite see far enough. Her boss leaned out with her for a second, but turned to run down the stairs. She followed him down, her hands still holding the unfinished prawns. On the beach they caught up to the crowd to see the washed-up cargo of The Valiant. The gorgeous nets hanging from the boat had been ripped from the side and carried back ashore. They were now clinging in a tangle to one of the wooded planks, almost more beautiful than before. Several of the twisted poles lay near a pile of life jackets and twinkling lures. They stood in the sparse crowd speechless. She opened her hands and the last of the prawns fell to the kicked-up oil-stained sand, finally released into their lapping mother of warning.